SYRACUSE, NY – After evaluating last year’s Florida State football team, Willie Taggart said he saw a group that didn’t respond well to adversity.
In the nine months since he became FSU’s head coach, fixing that problem – and creating a mentally-strong team in the process – has been one of Taggart’s top priorities.
The Seminoles will soon see just how far they’ve come. Because after a 30-7 loss to Syracuse on Saturday at the Carrier Dome, adversity is here.
FSU (1-2, 0-2 in ACC play) will look to get back on track at home next week against Northern Illinois (3:30 p.m., ESPNU).
“We all need to look within ourselves and ask ourselves, ‘What are we doing?’” Taggart said after the game. “Are we doing everything that we’re supposed to? Are we doing enough to help this football team?”
Those questions, Taggart said, applied to players and coaches alike. And, at least on Saturday, the answer was a painful and obvious, “No.”
Saddled by too many mistakes – including 11 penalties for 90 yards – the Seminoles’ offense struggled to find its rhythm against a Syracuse defense that had appeared vulnerable in previous weeks.
FSU’s defense did its part, but with an overwhelming disparity in time of possession, as well as overwhelming heat and humidity inside Syracuse’s Carrier Dome, coordinator Harlon Barnett’s group eventually wore down.
The Orange went into halftime holding just a 6-0 lead, but scored on four of five possessions in the second half.
Reserve quarterback Tommy DeVito, a redshirt freshman, engineered three touchdown drives after usual starter Eric Dungey left with an injury midway through the game.
By the end of the third quarter, the Orange had held the ball for more than 28 minutes and finished with a total possession advantage of 36:53-23:07.
“They played too much football tonight,” Taggart said of his defense. “If you play that much, you’re going to eventually break.”
The Seminoles managed 240 yards of total offense, 178 of which came through the air. Their first touchdown – a 1-yard run from quarterback Deondre Francois – cut their deficit to 24-7 midway through the fourth quarter and offered a glimmer of a comeback bid.
Syracuse, however, recovered the ensuing onside-kick attempt and then sealed the game with a 19-yard touchdown run a few moments later.
“Just not playing hard enough,” Francois said. “It’s not the coaches. It’s not the play-calling. It’s not the scheme.”
“We’re prepared, we’re just not playing hard enough. Everybody is playing harder than us.”
Francois completed 18 of 36 passes for 178 yards and one interception, but he was also sacked four times, hit often and otherwise relentlessly pressured by Syracuse’s defensive front.
The Orange didn’t allow much on the ground, either, just 62 yards on 23 carries. FSU’s longest run of the night, a 21-yard scramble from Francois, came after a play had broken down.
“They took advantage of the things we didn’t do well,” Taggart said. “We’ve got to be much better up front. That’s where it all starts, and, right now, we’re not that good up front and we’ve got to get better.”
Taggart in that specific instance was talking about his offensive line, but, with exception to some positive moments from his defense, could’ve been talking about the team as a whole.
In his postgame press conference, Taggart was quick to admit that the Seminoles were not playing the way that they should, and said that they should be both upset and frustrated by it.
Same goes for an anxious fan base now looking ahead at FSU’s nine remaining games.
“Our fans have every right to be upset,” Taggart said. “There’s an expectation here. There’s a standard here. And we’re not living up to it.”
Not yet, anyway.
But Taggart also has no plans to stay stuck in neutral.
In all of his previous stops, Taggart has dealt with difficult starts. His first Western Kentucky team began its season 0-6 on the way to a 2-10 finish. At South Florida, Taggart started with four straight losses before finishing 2-10. Even in his one year at Oregon, Taggart had to navigate a 4-4 start before winning three of his last four games.
In each instance, Taggart weathered the early pain and frustration on the way to better days ahead. It was those better days that allowed Taggart to climb through the coaching ranks, and that eventually led him to Tallahassee.
Safe to say he knows a thing or two about dealing with adversity in his own right.
Asked how to do that, Taggart replied:
“Trusting the process and staying focused on what we’re doing. Staying focused, staying locked into the plan and not wavering.
“Eventually, the guys get it and things get going.”
In the meantime, Taggart has a message for Florida State fans.
“Don’t give up on this football team,” he said. “Please, don’t give up on this football team. If some do, we understand. And we’ll work our tail off to get them back.”
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