Watch: FSU coach Mike Norvell on the challenge North Carolina presents
Florida State coach Mike Norvell talks about the team’s progress in certain areas and the challenge North Carolina presents on defense.
Andre C. Fernandez, Tallahassee Democrat
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — For the first time in 12 years, Florida State football plays at North Carolina today.
The Seminoles (1-4, 1-2 in ACC) will take on the Tar Heels (3-2, 2-2) at 3:30 p.m. at Kenan Memorial Stadium.
It’s the first time FSU has played at UNC since a comeback 30-27 win led by quarterback Christian Ponder in 2009. The Seminoles have hosted the Tar Heels three times since that game, doing so in 2010, 2016 and 2020. FSU won only the last of those three, shocking sixth-ranked UNC 31-28 last season.
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FSU is 7-1 all-time at North Carolina and leads the all-time series 16-3-1, but enters today’s game as a significant 17.5-point underdog.
The Seminoles will play in their all-white uniform tops and pants today with the traditional gold helmets. It’s the first time FSU has worn this look since head coach Mike Norvell took over in December of 2019.
For Norvell, he’s looking for his first road win at FSU in six tries.
Although FSU allowed a late score, it hung on by doing the same thing it did effectively through its 35-25 victory over North Carolina – run the football. Treshaun Ward’s tough running on the final series sealed Mike Norvell’s first victory away from Tallahassee since taking over as the Seminoles’ coach last year.
After falling behind 10-0 early, FSU outscored the Tar Heels 35-7, did not allow a sack, and prevailed despite allowing 432 total yards.
For the first time in his career, quarterback Jordan Travis threw for three touchdown passes and accounted for five overall (two rushing) in a performance in which the Seminoles solidified their identity on offense with him at the helm.
After North Carolina drove 70 yards to the Seminoles’ 5-yard line, FSU’s defense comes up with another big stop to force a loss on downs. The Seminoles’ banged up interior defensive line stepped up again to make two stops on consecutive Ty Chandler runs and force UNC into a passing situation. Malcolm Ray, Fabien Lovett and Robert Cooper made the key tackles for back-to-back no gains.
Howell’s next two throws missed the mark including a shot to the corner of the end zone on fourth down which was broken up by true freshman cornerback Kevin Knowles II.
Last week against Syracuse, Jordan Travis threw only one pass which traveled over 20 yards according to Pro Football Focus. In this game, Travis has hit on two such passes including a 44-yarder to Keyshawn Helton to set up a 1-yard TD sneak by Travis three plays later and put the Noles back up by 11.
Twice, FSU has responded when UNC has seemingly swung the momentum its way early in halves.
Travis led another impressive scoring drive after that which he capped with a 6-yard touchdown pass to Ontaria Wilson – their second scoring connection of the game.
Travis has thrown three touchdown passes and run for two more. He had never thrown for more than two touchdown passes or accounted for more than three touchdowns overall in a game in his career.
With the Seminoles torching the Tar Heels defense with read option runs by Jordan Travis, Carolina put its defenders closer to the line of scrimmage on FSU’s opening possession of the second half. The strategy worked as UNC forced a 3 and out after Travis was stopped on third down.
Carolina then found more room to run with Ty Chandler picking up a key first down which set up Howell’s 21-yard touchdown pass to tight end Kamari Morales to cut the Seminoles’ lead to 21-17.
Howell continued to make big plays eluding pressure and finding running room in the middle of FSU’s defense. After a 2nd and 14 situation, Howell ran for 10 and then nine yards to convert, which set up a key 21-yard catch and run by Josh Downs.
After taking its first lead of the game, FSU didn’t take its foot off the gas.
The ensuing UNC drive was promising before it was suddenly halted by a strong end zone interception from FSU cornerback Jarrian Jones.
It was FSU’s fourth interception of the season but the first of those that led to a touchdown for the Seminoles. The ensuing drive was capped off with a 32-yard touchdown pass from Jordan Travis to Ontaria Wilson after the Seminoles pounded the ball on the ground.
After UNC’s first two drives, the Tar Heels had 111 yards of offense to FSU’s 0. From that point forward, FSU outgained UNC 204 to 102, rattling off three straight touchdown drives to take a two-score lead into halftime after UNC’s Hail Mary attempt fell incomplete.
144 of FSU’s 204 yards have come on the ground. Travis has attempted just eight passes but completed six of them for 60 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
FSU may not have carried any momentum over to the start of this week’s game, but it seems to have built some after putting itself in an early hole at UNC.
After the long scoring drive cut UNC’s lead to 10-7, a rested FSU defense forced a quick three-and-out that put FSU’s offense right back on the field with pretty good field position.
There was no methodical drive this time for the Seminoles. After picking up one first down, Jordan Travis broke loose, hit the hole and escaped untouched for a 53-yard touchdown run that gave the Seminoles a 14-10 lead with 8:36 left in the first half.
FSU was outgained 126-12 in the first quarter and ran just six plays to UNC’s 21. But the Seminoles have completely turned that tide in the second quarter, running 12 plays to UNC’s six and outgaining 112-0 so far in the quarter.
After FSU ran just three plays on its opening drive while UNC had two lengthy scoring drives, the Seminoles’ defense was in dire need of a break.
That’s just what the FSU offense provided, piecing together one of its most methodical drives of the season to date. The Seminoles were set up at their own 41 by a long return from Travis Jay and marched 59 yards over 13 plays on a drive that lasted over seven minutes.
It was capped off by a touchdown catch from Malik McClain on third and goal from the five-yard line, the first touchdown of his career. It was also the Seminoles’ third third-down conversion of the drive. They also converted on a 15-yard run from Jashaun Corbin on third and eight and a pass to Keyshawn Helton on third and six earlier in the drive.
Third downs have been a problem for the Seminoles on both sides of the ball this season, but they have converted 3 of 4 so far against UNC while the Tar Heels have picked up 3 of 5.
It’s safe to say FSU didn’t carry forward much momentum from last week.
The Seminoles, taking the field defensively first, have allowed a pair of methodical North Carolina scoring drives. After a 10-play drive to start that ended with a 51-yard field, the Tar Heels then capped off a 12-play, 70-yard drive with a 33-yard touchdown pass from Sam Howell to Josh Downs.
In between, FSU had a quick three-and-out. Late in the first quarter, FSU is facing a 22-3 play discrepancy that could weigh on the defense as the game progresses. It’s the third time in the last four weeks FSU has faced an early deficit and seen its opponent run far more plays.
FSU won the toss and deferred, something it has done in all but one game so far this season.
This means UNC’s high-powered offense will get the ball to start.
Jordan Travis entered the week of the UNC game as the starting quarterback on the depth chart for the first time this season.
He led the Seminoles to their first win of the season, running for 113 yards in the 33-30 win over Syracuse after McKenzie Milton started each of the previous three games.
Travis seems poised to make his second straight start as he’s once again warming up with no sort of brace on his right knee after missing the Louisville game due to injury.
But the other three scholarship quarterbacks are all here. Milton is dressed out but was extremely limited in what he was doing during the 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 portions of practice. It remains unclear if he’s available for the Seminoles off the bench this week.
On the other side, FSU will be facing former commit Sam Howell for the second straight year. Howell entered his third season at UNC as a major Heisman contender. While he hasn’t quite lived up to that potential, he is still among the most productive quarterbacks this season.
What effect could weather have?
The 24 hours leading up to kickoff in Chapel Hill have been filled with quite a bit of rain.
As of the hours leading up to kickoff, the rain has ceased and the forecast has improved drastically, but just over an hour out from kickoff, rain resumed inside the stadium. It stopped a few minutes later but it’s entirely possible there’s some start and stop to the weather over the course of the afternoon and early evening.
If it does rain during the game, that may play into FSU’s hands as the Seminoles will definitely be more reliant on their run game than UNC.
Offensive line availability
FSU hasn’t started a game with its desired starting offensive line since the season-opening game against Notre Dame.
Even in that game, Maurice Smith left at halftime and hasn’t returned to the starting lineup since. But after Smith returned last week in a reserve role, playing the majority of the center snaps, FSU could finally get its top starting line back this week.
If Smith and Robert Scott are both back in the starting five, it would be the healthiest the Seminoles’ offensive front has been all season. It will be interesting to see how much of a difference that could make for the FSU offense.
Early indications are good as Smith is fully dressed out and seems positioned to start. He worked with the first-team line during pregame warmups between guards Dillan Gibbons and Devontay Love-Taylor and tackles Darius Washington and Scott.
Other pregame notes
After he was extremely limited to one snap last week, Travis Jay is going through warmups in a more full capacity this week.
FSU will again be without a few defensive backs for its matchup with the Tar Heels. Safeties Brendan Gant and Renardo Green as well as cornerback Meiko Dotson are not available for today’s game.
Defensive tackle Jarrett Jackson, who was poised to take a bigger role with Dennis Briggs Jr. out for the season, will also be out against UNC.