Florida State stubs its toe again, putting bowl eligibility — and bowl streak — in jeopardy

Louisville and Florida State met in Tallahassee on Saturday in an ACC Atlantic showdown that had more to do with getting bowl eligible and less to do with making a run at the division title.

The last time these teams met was nothing short of a disaster for the Seminoles.

Last September, Lamar Jackson had a Heisman Trophy coming-out party with 4 rushing touchdowns and another passing score en route to 362 total yards to help then-No. 10 Louisville demolish then-No. 2 Florida State, 63-20 — the most points ever allowed by the Seminoles. The Cardinals finally broke through against the ‘Noles in a very big way after blowing second-half leads against them the previous two years.

It was an embarrassment that Florida State had not endured probably ever. While the contest was much closer this time around, the result was unfortunately the same for Jimbo Fisher’s squad.

Searching for its first home win of the season as well as the .500 mark to help extend its bowl streak to 36 years, FSU dropped a 31-28 decision to the Cardinals when Blanton Creque connected on a 34-yard field goal with 5 seconds left. The game-winner ended a drive that was made possible after Seminoles freshman quarterback James Blackman fumbled when they were looking for their own score to break the 28-all tie. It was the 18-year-old’s third turnover of the day.

The Cardinals’ opening drive made things look very ominous for Florida State. Jackson had back-to-back 20-plus yard rushes, the latter being a 22-yard scoring run on an inside zone-read play for his 11th rushing touchdown of the season to put Louisville up 7-0.

In his fifth career start, though, Blackman and the FSU answered with a 9-play, 78-yard drive that covered 5:07 and ended with Blackman connecting with tight end Ryan Izzo, who was lined up as a wide receiver, for a 7-yard score.

The ‘Noles defense made a big stand early in the second quarter, deflecting a Jackson-to-Jaylen Smith fourth-and-5 pass at the FSU 32 to turn the ball over on downs. And it started to generate pressure on Jackson, who took some hits and was unable to do much offensively the rest of the first half. Meanwhile, FSU started to struggle on first down, which left Blackman with third-and-longs that the offense could not convert.

The game seemed to turn late in the second quarter when Jackson took a big hit from Joshua Kaindoh on a zone-read play. He fumbled, and Matthew Thomas returned it 34 yards for a scoop and score with 4:08 left in the first half. It was a big play for coordinator Charles Kelly’s defense, which has been beleaguered a bit for not playing up to its full potential in 2017.

But right before the half ended, Jackson shook off the turnover and led the Cards on an 8-play, 75-yard drive that ended with a beautiful throw from the defending Heisman Trophy winner to Seth Dawkins for a 26-yard score. Seminoles cornerback Kyle Meyers was with Dawkins stride for stride, but Jackson dropped it in over his head. The drive was aided by a Florida State pass interference penalty after Brian Burns and Derrick Nnadi combined on a sack. Once again, as has been the case all season, a yellow flag doomed the ‘Noles.

Blackman looked like a first-year freshman on FSU’s final drive of the first half. Operating the 2-minute drill is a chore for any young signal caller, and he threw an interception to Trumaine Washington. However, Creque missed a 45-yard field goal attempt, which was his first miscue of the year.

The Seminoles did not inflict a ton of damage on the ground in the first 30 minutes, as neither Jacques Patrick nor Cam Akers broke off big runs. But Fisher went right back to the ground to begin the second half with back-to-back Patrick runs, which spurred an 11-play drive that spanned 5:25. However, after Blackman and Auden Tate failed to connect on a third-and-3, Seminoles kicker Ricky Aguayo missed a 44-yard field goal. It would end up coming back to haunt Florida State.

After his first 3 rushes went for 60 yards, Jackson was corralled by Derwin James and the FSU defense. Until the third quarter.

Jackson, who finished with 178 yards on 23 rushes, broke free for a 51-yard scamper to hit 100 yards rushing for the 18th time in his career, and it set up a Reggie Bonnafon dive run for a 2-yard score to give the Cards a 21-14 lead. The wheels started to come off for the ‘Noles after that score, as Blackman threw his second interception to Washington on a wobbly, underthrown ball on the offense’s first play after the Louisville score. After not throwing a pick in his first 71 attempts of his career, Blackman had thrown six in his last 52 after that interception. On the ensuing drive, the Cards extended their lead to 28-14 when Dae Williams scored on 25-yard counter. Blackman finished the day 16 of 28 passing for 248 yards with 2 touchdowns and 2 interceptions.

Fisher, though, wisely did not abandon the run. Then Blackman connected on a fourth-and-3 to Auden Tate to extend a drive that appeared to end on a fourth-and-10 incompletion that would have continued the offense’s red zone woes. However, a roughing the passer penalty by Louisville’s James Hearns — its first penalty of the game — extended the drive. And it ended when Nyqwan Murray recovered a Patrick fumble in the end zone for a score.

After Florida State forced a Louisville punt, Tate — already with a bum shoulder — went down with an apparent ankle injury after a catch and limped off the field. The ‘Noles already were playing without George Campbell and Keith Gavin, so Blackman had very little to work with outside of Murray and Izzo in the passing game.

But Blackman’s fourth-quarter magic continued, as he hooked up with Murray on the very next play after the Tate injury for a 20-yard score that tied the game at 28. It was the first time the ‘Noles scored more than 26 points in a game this year. Illinois was the only other Power 5 team that hadn’t hit that mark this fall.

Bobby Petrino’s Cardinals weren’t done, though. Jackson connected with Jaylen Smith for 21 yards on third-and-9 to continue a drive that went all the way to the FSU 27. But Petrino went for it on fourth down, and the Florida State defense stopped Bonnafon for no gain to take over on offense. Blackman, though, fumbled when pulling the ball out on a zone-read play to give Jackson and the Cards offense a chance to break the tie and win. Bonnafon and Jackson each had a 15-yard run on an 8-play, 59-yard 2-minute drive that set up Creque’s game-winning kick.

The ‘Noles are just not an explosive offense in 2017. They have not found the end zone as often as they would have liked, and their freshman quarterback is learning on the job without the luxury of a deep receiver corps. But they also have a defense that boasts at least four first-round picks. And too often this season, it’s a unit that hasn’t been able to get key stops.

Things don’t get much easier for the ‘Noles, starting with a road game next week at Boston College, which has one three of its last four, including a win over Louisville, so Fisher continues to have a tough coaching job as the program looks to extend its postseason streak that is very much in jeopardy at 2-4.

Florida State must win four of its last five to reach the 6-win plateau, and road games against Clemson at Florida also loom.

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