Just over five minutes into the second half of Monday night’s game between Florida State and Ole Miss, Kermit Whitfield caught a three-yard swing pass and ran it into the left side of the end zone for a Florida State touchdown. The Seminoles had their first lead of the night at 29-28, and it wouldn’t look back on its way to a 45-34 Labor Day shootout.
“We didn’t deserve to win the game with the way we played in the second half,” Head Coach Hugh Freeze said.
A 28-6 barrage of offense by Ole Miss to start the game was suddenly awash. Gone. Wiped as clean as Florida State’s play in the second half that led to 16 points in the first five minutes, and 33 unanswered before Ole Miss would score again. A Deondre Francois touchdown pass to Ryan Izzo on the next Seminole drive following a lightning quick three and out by the Rebels made the hole even deeper at 36-28.
“It was a nightmarish second half,” Freeze said.” I really thought things started to turn a little bit on that last drive of the first half.”
The crowd was loud, really loud. A virtual home game for Florida State – whose fans were forced to sit on their hands into the opening half at Camping World Stadium due to an air raid by quarterback Chad Kelly and the Ole Miss offense – quickly felt like one as the more than 47,000 rejoiced in the swing of momentum in this seesaw Labor Day opener.
“You could definitely say it was a home field advantage for sure for them,” Kelly said. “But that shouldn’t have to (do) with anything. It comes down to execution and turning the ball over four times against a good team is not going to win you many ball games.”
Kelly did not complete a pass in what was a disastrous third quarter that saw the offense turn the ball over on both of its first two possessions and totaled -7 yards of offense in the quarter. Kelly finished 21-39 with 313 yards, four touchdowns and three interceptions. He had one of the best secondaries in college football on its heels in the first half, gashing them for 215 yards and three touchdowns in the opening half, but the second half was a much different story.
“They played cover two. They played cover one. I thought we had a good game plan going in,” Kelly said. “It’s on me. They did the same stuff. It comes down to execution.”
Florida State out-gained Ole Miss 348 to 165 in the second half. It also exposed its weaknesses. A thin Ole Miss secondary was faced with adversity early on as defensive back Ken Webster left the game with tears rolling down his face in the first quarter.
“I thought we didn’t handle adversity very well in the second half when it came,” Defensive Coordinator Dave Wommack said. “We have a lot of work to do.”
And while it held its own in the first half, the freshman quarterback Francois found his rhythm in the second half and finished 33-52 for 419 yards and two scores. The freshman did not throw an interception either.
“I thought he was really poised and made very accurate throws once he got settled in,” Freeze said. “First part of the game he was not as accurate, but man he was pretty accurate.”
An offensive line with question marks sprinkled across the board played well in the first half, but eventually succumbed to a talented Florida State defensive line. Kelly was sacked five times.
“They saw we were throwing a lot and started really bringing it whereas in the first half in their mind they were thinking we were going to run it more,” Offensive Coordinator Dan Werner said.
Much of Ole Miss’ offensive success came quick, and the Rebels possessed ball for less than a third of the game. It took its toll on a defense that was on the field for 42 minutes and 39 seconds.
Ole Miss not only received a stinging defeat while crumbling in the second half, but also a dose of adversity. The cupboard at running back became even more bare after Eric Swinney exited the game with a knee injury of his own in the first half.
“It’s next man up,” Werner said, “That’s what we said when Jordan (Wilkins) was out. Now we’re doing the same thing there.”
The road doesn’t get any easier either as it heads back home to face the likes of Alabama and Georgia in a daunting opening month slate.
“Our September is very brutal. We’ve got to play a difficult offense to defend and a short week, and then we’ve got two big conference games coming in,” Freeze said. “There’s no time to sit there and feel sorry for yourself. It’s a long season. We’ve got to get ready to play.”