ORLANDO — Florida State needed time to adjust Monday night, but once the Seminoles settled, they showed why they expect to be College Football Playoff contenders with a 45–34 win against Ole Miss. Here are three takeaways from the night Florida State introduced its new quarterback and the next Aguayo brother made a school-record six field goals.
1. Florida State’s defense woke up at the same time coach Jimbo Fisher figured out how to best use quarterback Deondre Francois
The Seminoles sleepwalked through the first half, and for 30 minutes it seemed the Rebels were on the verge of running them out of Camping World Stadium. Ole Miss quarterback Chad Kelly carved up Florida State’s secondary for 215 first-half passing yards thanks to a line that gave him plenty of time to throw and receivers who excel at getting separation. The Seminoles were as undisciplined as they were uninspired. They committed 11 first-half penalties at a cost of 97 yards.
Meanwhile, FSU’s offensive performance for most of the first half can be summed up with two images.
Francois, the redshirt freshman making his first start, struggled with the Rebels’ pass rush. Star tailback Dalvin Cook dropped the ball while waltzing in for what should have been a second-quarter touchdown. The Seminoles trailed by as many as 22 points late in the second quarter.
But something changed near the end of the half. Francois closed the second quarter by throwing a 16-yard strike to Travis Rudolph in the end zone while getting clobbered by Ole Miss defensive end Marquis Haynes. When the teams returned for the second half, it was as if they’d traded mind-sets. Florida State’s defense harassed Kelly. Meanwhile, Fisher’s playcalling seemed to accentuate the strengths of Francois—running, moving the pocket, throwing on the move—instead of trying to force him into a box that would have fit Jameis Winston or E.J. Manuel much better.
Including that touchdown to close the first half, the Seminoles ripped off 30 consecutive points before Ole Miss could answer. By now, we should expect this from the Seminoles. Here are the numbers before Monday. Add another come-from-behind win to the pile.
FSU has trailed at halftime of a regular season game 6 times since 2013. The Seminoles have won all 6, including 2 wins when trailing by 13+— Chris Fallica (@chrisfallica) September 6, 2016
2. Ole Miss is going to have trouble hanging on to leads until it can establish a running game
The Rebels are going to score in bunches against most opponents this season because of Kelly’s brilliance and a deep receiving corps. But against the best teams on the schedule, the Rebels may reach a point where they need to burn some clock and run some low-risk plays. Unfortunately, they haven’t been able to do that effectively in the Freeze era. Monday was no exception. Up 28–13 at halftime, the Rebels needed to sustain a few drives and (hopefully) wear out Florida State’s defense while building a cushion.
Instead, the Rebels had only three called runs in the 10 offensive plays they ran in the third. Those plays gained five yards. The rest were passes, including a tipped ball that was intercepted by Florida State’s Marcus Lewis (which resulted in a Seminoles touchdown). Another pass never left Kelly’s hands because Florida State’s DeMarcus Walker sacked Kelly and stripped him, allowing Derrick Nnandi to recover (which also resulted in a Seminoles touchdown).
Ole Miss failed to get a first down in the third quarter and got outgained 214 yards to minus-7. In the process, the Seminoles turned a 15-point deficit into a six-point lead.
3. The most promising possession for the Seminoles was the one Dalvin Cook had off
With Cook taking a breather on the sideline in the third quarter, Francois and tight end Ryan Izzo guided the Seminoles on an eight-play, 77-yard touchdown drive. Francois started the possession by dumping it off to Izzo for a 10-yard gain. Later, on third-and-10 from the Florida State 23-yard line, Izzo made the key block to spring Francois for a 31-yard gain. Three plays later, Francois rolled out on a naked bootleg and threw across the field to a wide-open Izzo for a 29-yard gain to the 2-yard line. Francois capped the drive with a two-yard touchdown pass to Izzo in the back of the end zone.
Why was this drive so encouraging? Because Cook has had to carry the Seminoles’ offense dating back to the end of his freshman season. (Yes, when Jameis Winston was still on the team.) Last year, the Seminoles leaned far too heavily on Cook. This drive proved they can score on an athletic defense without him. It also allows him to get a break. On Florida State’s following possession, Cook carried three times for 24 yards to help set up a 40-yard field goal by Ricky Aguayo, who made older brother—and former Seminole—Robert proud by booting a school-record six field goals on the night.