Not a minute too soon: Florida State goes down to wire to earn first win

Florida State entered Saturday’s road tilt against Wake Forest an angry team having lost its first two games of the season and essentially being knocked out of the College Football Playoff race. Making things worse was having to navigate the rest of its 2017 slate without quarterback Deondre Francois, who was lost to a season-ending injury in the opener against No. 1 Alabama.

It’s not often college football fans see a winless FSU squad taking on an unbeaten Wake Forest outfit, but that’s exactly what unfolded in Winston-Salem, N.C. Despite being outplayed for most of the game, Florida State escaped Tobacco Road with its first victory of the season when true freshman quarterback James Blackman threw a 40-yard touchdown pass to Auden Tate with less than a minute left to break a 19-19 tie and help the Seminoles claim a 26-19 win.

FSU entered the road contest off to its worst start in 28 years. However, when the program started 0-2 in 1989, it managed to win 10 straight games to end the season. Coach Jimbo Fisher and his staff are hoping to follow a similar script. And it needed to start against the Deacs.

One of the major issues concerning Florida State heading into this matchup was its lack of an explosive rushing attack. The Seminoles had 32.5 percent of their designed runs go for a loss or no gain, which was the worst rate among Power 5 teams this fall. Of course, Fisher’s squad had just two games under its belt. But Cam Akers and Jacques Patrick needed to be a much bigger part of this offense, and they capitalized on their opportunity against Wake, as the pair combined for 178 rushing yards and a touchdown.

When FSU played Alabama in the season opener, the duo combined for 47 yards on 16 carries. Things were a little bit better against North Carolina State last week, as they recorded 93 yards on 20 rushes between them. But they had not been able to find the end zone on the ground, and the Seminoles needed to assert their will offensively more and establish a consistent rushing attack — especially with a true freshman behind center. It wasn’t easy, as the pair relied on big plays to hit their numbers on Saturday, but the mere threat of the run against this tough Wake front was much needed. And it’s something that FSU will need to continue to do moving forward.

Things started off ominously for the Seminoles when Derwin James returned the opening kick 100 yards for a touchdown. However, it was called back for an illegal block to the back. The Seminoles promptly went three-and-out on their opening possession. But the dedication to the ground was evident from the get-go, and it paid off when the Seminoles reclaimed possession.

Patrick had a 69-yard burst before the offense stalled and settled for a Ricky Aguayo 51-yard field goal. The lack of offensive rhythm was due in large part to the struggles of a beleaguered offensive line. And things turned darker when left tackle Derrick Kelly, who has battled numerous injuries during the first three years of his FSU career, went down. FSU ended up playing with an entirely new left side of the O-Line.

FSU caught a break when Wake was called for a roughing the punter penalty, but the Seminoles once again could do nothing against the Wake defense, which was having great success despite playing its base unit. When Wake took over possession midway through the second quarter, FSU had just 7 yards and a lost fumble on 19 plays outside of Patrick’s 69-yard run. That Deacs possession led to the game’s first touchdown, as John Wolford’s rushing score from 3 yards out capped off a seamless-looking 8-play, 81-yard drive that gave them a 12-3 lead after the extra-point attempt was missed. Despite FSU’s defense stiffening and holding Wake to early field goals, its offense wasn’t doing much to help out.

On the ensuing kickoff, Keith Gavin did his best to give his team a jolt. He returned it 81 yards to the Wake 16-yard line, and it helped set up a Patrick 1-yard scoring plunge. The tailback was the primary weapon on the drive, as Fisher continued his effort to establish the ground game.

The momentum continued to swing as the Seminoles forced their first turnover of the season when Wolford’s low pass was bobbled and intercepted by Kyle Meyers to set up FSU deep in Wake territory. The drive stalled, though, aided by a holding penalty, and the Seminoles settled for an Aguayo 27-yard field goal. For the game, FSU scored 1 TD and had 3 field goals in 4 red zone appearances, so finding the end zone remains a major issue. As do the penalties.

Despite being outplayed for most of the first half and gaining only 108 total yards of offense, FSU took a 13-12 lead into the break.

FSU caught a huge break when Wake was on the doorstep of a potential touchdown in the second half. After a botched snap, Wolford completed a pass to Chuck Wade, who fumbled after a hit by Meyers. It was recovered by Jalen Wilkerson, and it was the first time all season that the Deacs failed to score any points when inside the red zone.

But the Wake Forest defense continued to make life difficult for the Seminoles, and Dave Clawson’s squad went on a 7-play, 59-yard drive that ended with a Matt Colburn 7-yard scoring run that gave the Deacs a 19-16 lead.

With 10:18 left in the game, FSU began a season-defining drive at its 35. Blackman connected with Gavin on a third-and-20 for a gain of 43 yards to the Wake Forest 20 — a strike that may have salvaged the season. The drive ended in an Aguayo 35-yard field goal to tie it up, and the defense forced a Dom Maggio punt. The offense took over again, and a defensive holding penalty on a play in which Blackman was sacked for a loss of 12 yards gave the Seminoles an automatic first down. But the Wake defense, which set a school record for tackles for loss in a game, held strong and forced a punt. Wake took over at its 10, and after two conservative runs, the Deacs failed to convert on a long third down.

With 1:01 left and a timeout remaining, Fisher let his young quarterback take a shot downfield, and the gamble paid off. Blackman hit Tate for a 40-yard score and a 26-19 lead. Through three quarters, Blackman had thrown for just 31 yards. But he had a big final frame, and no play was bigger than his scoring pass with under a minute to play. In just two starts, Blackman has shown that he can make some big throws — if he can be kept upright by this subpar offensive line.

Not many teams — not even the Alabamas or Clemsons of the world — can win without much better play along the offensive line.

The post Not a minute too soon: Florida State goes down to wire to earn first win appeared first on Diehards.

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