- Dave George Palm Beach Post Sports Columnist
The third quarter of Saturday’s ballyhooed Chick-Fil-A Kickoff Game, with 11 Alabama points off a blocked punt and a fumble recovery, seemed about as bad as bad could be for Florida State.
Then came the fourth, a far truer definition of disaster because that’s when quarterback Deondre Francois got crushed under a sack and outfitted at least temporarily with crutches and directed to a cart for a mournful ride to the Seminoles’ locker room.
If his left leg, the one in the big air cast, won’t allow a return for some major slice of the season, this 24-7 loss to No. 1 Alabama won’t be what stops the Seminoles short. It will be the chaos of switching to a new, untested quarterback with just one game in the books and Miami Hurricanes just two weeks away.
“I hugged him and told him I’m sorry he’s hurt and told him I loved him,” FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said of Francois. “We’ll get the diagnosis and we’ll figure out what we’ve got to do from here.”
“Of course I’m concerned because that’s your starting quarterback but we’ll get the guys behind him prepped and we’ll play.”
The guys behind him, a committee of second- and third-choices, are not the players anyone expects to lead FSU into contention for the College Football Playoff at season’s end. James Blackman, a true freshman from Glades Central, entered the game following Francois’ injury late in Saturday’s game and handed the ball off three times. Is he the one Jimbo turns to lead the offense?
“As of right now we will, most likely,” Jimbo said. “That’s where we are, but we’ll evaluate this week and see.”
If there is any relief at all, it’s in the knowledge that Louisiana-Monroe comes next for the Seminoles, with Louisville and Clemson and other rivals much farther down the road. Also, there’s the experience of hanging with Alabama for more than a half on Saturday night’s big stage, and of limiting the Crimson Tide to 269 yards in total offense and 13 first downs overall.
What happens, though, when an offensive line that’s been incapable of saving Francois from sacks finds itself in an even tougher spot? Trying to blast out running room in an offense that could be significantly more one-dimensional. Trying to babysit quarterbacks who are learning on the job, and probably being granted half a playbook by coaches.
This is where attitude becomes a greater key than aptitude.
Jimbo set the stage for that by insisting “I still think we’ve got a great football team.” Junior center Alec Eberle worked, too, on the specific sore spot of quarterback, painting Blackman, who comes from the same Palm Beach County school as former FSU star Kelvin Benjamin, as just another ready-made hero.
“He’s a special kid,” Eberle said. “There’s something about him. In football sometimes people have that ‘it’ factor. This kid’s got it. Whatever it is, he has that. So if he has to step in, we have full faith in him. He can throw the heck out of the football and I trust him 100 percent.”
The thing is, not even Nick Saban and his big-time quarterback Jalen Hurts, can be trusted 100 percent. The Seminoles limited Hurts to 96 passing yards, and 53 of those came on a touchdown pass to wide receiver Calvin Ridley, who somehow got wide open down the middle of the field in the second quarter.
The rest of the game was spotty, with a couple of missed field goals for Alabama and six punts and a whole lot of scowling by Saban over the way FSU’s speedy defenders were running down his guys in the open field.
Special teams are what turned this game around, with a blocked FSU field-goal try on the final play of the first half and two major Seminole errors to start the second. The Crimson Tide, who are No. 1 for reasons like this, blocked a punt to set up a field goal and less than a minute later scooped up a fumbled kickoff return to set up a touchdown and a two-point conversion.
That’s what cost FSU the game. What might cost them a chance to rebound with an ACC title and a possible playoff spot is Francois’ injury. He was scrambling, like always, and rolling to his right when defensive back Ronnie Harrison came swooping in from the blind side to crumple the quarterback’s legs under the weight of his body.
Those two interceptions that Francois threw on a 210-yard passing night? Nobody’s going to remember any of that. Unless the guy bounces back the way he did after so many crushing blows last season. FSU ranked a pitiful 108th in sacks allowed last year, remember. It’s a wonder that Jimbo hasn’t faced this situation sooner.
“I’m not a doc,” Jimbo said. “I don’t know. I’ve learned to wait until they see.”
“When you play good people like that, you’ve got to be perfect. I didn’t think our offensive line was poor at all. I thought they did a pretty solid job, and we’ll look at the reasons for the breakdowns.”
He’ll look for ways re to help whoever plays quarterback hereafter, beginning with a greater contribution from true freshman running back Cam Akers, who ripped off a 9-yard gain on his first collegiate carry and faked an Alabama defender to the ground while turning a simple swing pass into an 11-yard gain.
Younger and younger the Seminoles get at the skill positions, yet still dangerous. It’s why Jimbo keeps thinking he’s ready to go on a spectacular run.
Francois was the key to it in 2017, and now he may be out.
“We grew up as a team tonight,” said defensive tackle Fred Jones, “and we came together. We have 11 more games and it’s time to get it.”
Against Louisiana-Monroe, yes, sure. Against everybody else, it’s a definite maybe. This Kickoff Game, a sensational opportunity to for reset expectations for the program, turned out to be a real kick in the gut.