TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – As he made his way off the field, shortly after Florida State put the finishing touches on a 49-12 victory over Alabama State, Odell Haggins stopped to share a moment with FSU President John Thrasher.
“Odell, nice work,” Thasher told his interim head coach. “Keep up the great work.”
The congratulations were well deserved. Haggins has done exactly what he was asked to do when Thrasher turned to him after coach Willie Taggart’s dismissal two weeks ago. The Seminoles have won two consecutive games and are now 4-0 in two stints under Haggins’ guidance.
And Haggins and the Seminoles will keep working a while longer, too – first in Gainesville on November 30, and then in a bowl game a few weeks later. That much was assured Saturday, when Florida State clinched its sixth win of the 2019 campaign, and along with it bowl eligibility for the 37th time in 38 years.
“It means the world,” Haggins said about returning to the postseason. “When these young men come to Florida State, they sign on the dotted line, they expect that.”
“That’s the standard,” defensive tackle Cory Durden said. “I’ve been watching Florida State for my entire life and I’ve never seen a year when Florida State isn’t playing after the Florida game.”
There were a few other things to smile about on an otherwise cold and gloomy day at Doak Campbell Stadium.
James Blackman threw for three touchdowns, Khalan Laborn ran for two more and Hamsah Nasirildeen punctuated the proceedings with an 80-yard interception return for a score.
When it was over, the Seminoles had checked off one more line item on their to-do list – they made sure that the team’s 18 seniors were winners in their final home game.
“I’m just so thankful,” said senior lineman Cole Minshew, who returned to the lineup midway through the season after dealing with injuries for much of the last year.
“I thought I wasn’t going to be able to play at all at one point. And just to be able to get back out there, finish strong and start a new bowl streak, I’m just very thankful.”
As was the case last week at Boston College, FSU used a big-play barrage to down another opponent.
And the Seminoles didn’t waste any time in doing it.
After the Hornets took a 3-0 lead on the game’s opening possession, Blackman answered with a 69-yard scoring strike to Tamorrion Terry on FSU’s first play from scrimmage.
“They tried to go man and they didn’t have anybody over the top,” Terry said. “I guess they didn’t respect us enough. So, Coach called it (for) the first play.”
That was one of two plays of 60-plus yards for the Seminoles, who have had five such plays in the last two weeks.
Quarterback Jordan Travis, who had something of a coming-out party last week, picked up where he left off with a 61-yard scamper that led to another touchdown.
By then, the Seminoles had moved past what had been a brief upset bid from the Hornets, who might have made things closer were it not for poor performances in short-yardage and kicking situations.
Despite holding an advantage in total yardage midway through the third quarter, Alabama State couldn’t muster much more than five field-goal attempts, only two of which were successful.
The Hornets gave FSU a brief scare with a 34-yard touchdown that made it 21-12 at the 13:46 mark of the third quarter. But a two-point attempt that would’ve brought ASU within a touchdown was unsuccessful, and the Seminoles hit back with Laborn’s second scoring run on their ensuing drive – the first of 28 consecutive points to finish the game.
Running back Deonte’ Sheffield scored the first touchdown of his career to provide the final margin with 18 seconds to play.
“We knew we weren’t going to let it slip,” Blackman said. “We were just getting ready to grind it out.”
Florida State finished with a healthy advantage in total yardage (525-350) and more than double Alabama State’s yard per play (9.4-4.4) despite holding the ball for only 19:20.
Nasirildeen, who made headlines with a 22-tackle outburst at Boston College last week, again led the Seminoles with 11 stops. He’s got 96 on the season and has a chance to become the first FSU defender with 100 tackles in a season since 2015.
“Hamsah works so hard,” Haggins said. “He wants to please you. And for that (interception to happen for Hamsah, it was great.”
Between his time as a player and a coach, Haggins has spent 31 of his 52 years on earth at Florida State.
He arrived in 1985, just two years into what would become a nation’s-best 36-year bowl streak. He played on No. 1-ranked teams, coached two teams that won national titles and has worked with dozens of All-Americans and NFL draft picks.
Which is to say that he holds Florida State football to a higher standard than simply reaching a bowl game.
“That’s the expectation at Florida State,” Haggins said. “In the top-5 and winning national championships.
He’s right. But it’s also true that the Seminoles can’t compete on the national stage without first securing their spot in the postseason. And, after the Seminoles finished 5-7 a year ago and sat home for the holidays for the first time since Haggins was 14 years old, all progress is welcome progress.
“That’s something we can build on as a university,” he said. “And we’re going to build on it.”