ORLANDO — Hell yes it hurt. Then Deondre Francois found out what happened next, and it felt much better.
The aftershocks of the hit Ole Miss defensive end Marquis Haynes laid on the Florida State redshirt freshman quarterback with 28 seconds remaining in Monday’s first half will linger. “All the licks were hard,” Francois said early Tuesday morning. “I haven’t been hit since high school. Every lick was pretty hard, but that’s football. I loved it. Every time I got hit, that made me want to score even more.” Just before that hit, which left Francois so shaken a teammate had to help him off the field, the Seminoles’ first-time starter rifled the ball toward teammate Travis Rudolph. Rudolph, 16 yards away in the end zone, hauled in the catch as Haynes creamed Francois.
The Seminoles would head into the locker room, where they’d hear a paint-peeling message from coach Jimbo Fisher. “Bleep, bu-bleep, bu-bleep, bleep, bleep,” Fisher recalled later. But they’d already snapped out of their trance. When Haynes crashed into Francois, Florida State trailed by 22. “They had the momentum,” Francois said. “We knew we had to drive and get a touchdown or we were going to be in some trouble.” Correction: They weren’t going to be in trouble. They already were in deep trouble.
Moments later, the ball settled into Rudolph’s hands. That pass snapped the Seminoles out of their first-half trance and sent the momentum swinging back toward Florida State. The Seminoles kept that edge and rode it to the biggest comeback victory in school history.
“Momentum is something that we don't talk about in sports enough,” Fisher said after his team’s 45–34 win. “We all want the reasons why, but once momentum swings, sometimes it just goes. It takes a heck of a group of kids to turn it back.” The Seminoles turned the momentum in their favor Monday, and then they never let it swing back in spite of the explosive offense on the other side of the field. In the process, Francois established himself as Florida State’s quarterback of the future and true freshman kicker Ricky Aguayo—the brother of former Seminoles kicker Robert Aguayo—set a school record with six field goals in six tries. Meanwhile, senior defensive end DeMarcus Walker woke an initially slumbering defense and racked up 4 1/2 sacks in the second half alone.
“It was a nightmarish second half,” Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said.
Fisher said the same about the first. Ole Miss jumped to a 28–6 lead behind 215 first-half passing yards from Chad Kelly, who tossed early touchdown passes to Da’Morea Stringfellow, D.K. Metcalf and Evan Engram. Ole Miss ran its offense at a blistering tempo, leaving Florida State defenders panting and the Seminoles’ offense pressing to keep up.
Francois was efficient early—he completed eight of 12 passes for 91 yards in the first quarter—but the Seminoles kept breaking down in the red zone. Kelly and the Rebels had no such issue. The senior tossed a pair of three-yard touchdown passes in the first quarter. Francois also struggled at times with pressure from the Rebels’ deep and athletic defensive line. This look Fisher gave Francois on the sideline in the first half pretty much summed up the state of the Seminoles’ affairs.
None of that discouraged Francois. “I couldn’t let [my teammates] see me down,” he said. “I had to portray the image of, We’re not going to lose this game. Any thought of losing my teammates had, I told them to delete it.” Besides, Francois took much worse from Fisher at practice these past few weeks. “In my years of playing football, I’ve never seen a coach ride a player so much to get something out of that player,” Florida State safety Derwin James said of the Fisher-Francois dynamic. “At the end of the day, all that is going to pay off for him. He just swallows it. He doesn’t say nothing back to him. He just says ‘Yes sir’ and moves on to the next play.”
Francois kept moving on Monday until everything finally clicked. And in their comeback win, the Seminoles discovered a few things about themselves.
• They have a quarterback.
Francois is at his best when moving the pocket and throwing on the run, and he has no problem bailing on the downfield throws for the easy dump-off. In fact, that helped him connect seven times with star tailback Dalvin Cook for 101 yards. It would have been 104, but Cook inexplicably dropped the ball three yards from the end zone after gaining 25 yards on a second-quarter pass. That didn’t keep Francois from going back to Cook. “I rely on my checkdowns a lot,” Francois said. “If we’re trying to go deep and it’s not there, I’m going to check down to Dalvin. It’s always a good outlet to give it to Dalvin and let him do what he does with it.” That may result in some pedestrian gains instead of highlight reels, but the young Francois understands that a quarterback never went broke making a profit. “One, two, three, checkdown,” Francois said. “That was my motto going into the game.” If that makes Francois a game manager, great. Fisher can’t think of a higher compliment. “A game manager is a playmaker,” Fisher said. “That's what I keep trying to tell everybody.” Monday, Francois managed his way to 419 passing yards, two passing touchdowns and 59 rushing yards.
• They have a kicker to replace an all-time great.
That new kicker happens to be the little brother of the all-time great, but with 21 points Monday, the younger Aguayo outscored 37 teams in Week 1.
• They can get pressure on the quarterback again.
Walker moved up and down the line of scrimmage and made Ole Miss offensive linemen miserable in the second half.
The Seminoles also got two hurries from defensive end Josh Sweat and more pressure from James, who occasionally moonlights as a pass-rusher. It was James bearing down on Kelly that forced the Ole Miss quarterback’s third and final interception late in the game.
• They don’t always have to rely on Cook, but he’s there when they need him.
The Seminoles mounted an eight-play, 77-yard touchdown drive in the third quarter with Cook on the sideline. (Tight end Ryan Izzo was the star of that particular possession.) After a year of leaning almost entirely on Cook to generate points, the Seminoles appear to have developed other weapons who can score on good teams even without Cook on the field. Still, Cook was pretty good when he was on the field. You’ve seen his receiving stats. He also carried 23 times for 91 yards.
Even though the Rebels collapsed, they showed flashes of what they can be. They’ll score a lot of points this season, and that makes Florida State’s comeback all the more impressive. “They really put us to the test tonight,” James said. “I love what they’re doing over there. I love their quarterback and receivers. I’m glad we played them on the opening weekend.” And Fisher is glad to know he has a team that can absorb a negative momentum swing and send it flying back in the opposite direction. “You've got to trust each other, have a system and go back to the basics and don't worry about the outcomes,” Fisher said. “It's hard to change momentum, and we got it and kept it.”