Ole Miss must regroup after 'nightmarish' loss to FSU
ORLANDO — The first Camping World Kickoff in Orlando was the third of three SEC-ACC matchups in Week 1.
The final one was certainly the most wild, as No. 4 Florida State made an incredible comeback to outlast No. 11 Ole Miss, 45-34, at Camping World Stadium. To say the least, it was a game of two halves.
Storming out to a 28-6 lead in the second quarter, Rebels quarterback Chad Kelly looked absolutely unstoppable. Operating coach Hugh Freeze’s offense at a blistering pace, he threw three touchdown passes — his ninth consecutive contest with multiple TDs through the air — and had the Seminoles’ defense totally overwhelmed.
However, FSU came to life toward the end of the second period. Kelly’s carelessness with the football was a big reason.
The ‘Noles blew the doors off Mississippi as a result with a 33-0 run. And it wasn’t Heisman Trophy candidate Dalvin Cook leading the way on the ground. It was Deondre Francois, a redshirt freshman quarterback making his first start, who took control.
Francois — originally from the Orlando area — was nothing short of sensational, completing 33-of-52 passes for 419 yards with 2 TD passes. Most important, he didn’t give the ball away once. Clearly growing more confident as the game progressed, he took advantage of a Rebs secondary playing short-handed due to injuries.
Kelly, who didn’t connect on a single pass in the third quarter, finished 21-of-39 for 313 yards with 4 TDs and 3 INTs. He also lost a fumble.
Forced to play without Laremy Tunsil at left tackle and Laquon Treadwell at receiver, both in the NFL now, Kelly originally seemed quite comfortable with his revamped supporting cast. After a quarter and a half, it had the makings of an Ole Miss boat race.
However, whatever went right quickly went wrong in what Freeze called a “nightmarish second half.” While Florida State couldn’t get anywhere near Kelly his first few possessions, its pass rushers — particularly Demarcus Walker — drove the senior signal caller into the turf on several occasions. A receiving corps that lacks an Alpha dog proved to be inconsistent catching the football.
Aside from tight end Evan Engram, who had a huge night with 9 catches for 121 yards and a score, Kelly didn’t get a lot of help.
Alongside Cook, Kelly came into the campaign on the short list of candidates for the Heisman Trophy. But he wasn’t even the best QB on the field. Francois had an even more impressive debut than former Heisman winner Jameis Winston in 2013.
Cook actually did more damage as a receiver, reeling in 7 catches for 101 yards. He eventually finished with 91 yards rushing on 23 carries, although he was bottled up as a ball carrier for long stretches. Credit the Rebels for not letting FSU’s best player beat them, but they couldn’t have expected what they saw from Francois.
Instead of Kelly and Cook, perhaps the real Heisman contender on display was the 6-foot-2, 205-pound Francois.
Despite taking some lumps early and then rolling an ankle late, Francois seemed to be cool, calm and collected both in and out of the pocket. Five Seminoles recorded at least three receptions, including Cook out of the backfield and Ryan Izzo at tight end.
Quite frequently, time of possession is one of the most overrated stats in the game, especially with the fast-and-furious way Kelly and Co. scheme. But the ‘Noles held the ball for 42:38 compared to 17:22 for the Rebels. When Francois wasn’t making critical throws on third down, he was gaining 59 yards on 9 rushing attempts.
Florida State also won the third phase. A freshman in his first game, Ricky Aguayo set a school record going 6-for-6 on field goals.
Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher, who has a reputation as one of the best in the land at making second-half adjustments, recovered from getting punched in the mouth by Freeze early. The plays Kelly made the first 30 minutes weren’t there after intermission.
Asked what he told players at halftime, Fisher laughed and said, “Bleep, bleep, bleep, bleep, bleep.”
Meanwhile, Freeze must pick up the pieces before going home. The Rebs get a bit of a breather with Wofford coming to Oxford on a short week, but seven days later they welcome No. 1 Alabama to Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Mississippi didn’t have what it took to go a full 60 minutes with Florida State, and the Crimson Tide are even more loaded.
With No. 18 Georgia also on the schedule early, Ole Miss has one of the toughest Septembers in the country.
But Kelly is going to have some tough questions to answer after playing a little too loose with the pigskin. Four turnovers could have been five or six. As a matter of fact, one of his TD passes came on an underthrown ball that got a fortunate bounce.
Freeze is always going to feature a pass-happy approach, but the Rebels also must find a way to run it consistently. While Akeem Judd averaged 5.5 yards per carry and found the end zone once, he was only handed the ball eight times. Before he started to get sacked so frequently in the second half, Kelly was the team’s most effective runner.
The best conference in America had a curious opening weekend at best. Only ‘Bama truly won in impressive fashion.
Had Mississippi been able to keep its foot on the accelerator — instead of stalling with all those giveaways — this would have been a huge shot in the arm for the league. The Rebs could have announced themselves as genuine threats in the West.
After one of the more stunning collapses in recent memory, beating up on Wofford five days later won’t be particularly satisfying. And with the Tide calling in Week 3, Ole Miss is staring a 1-2 start in the face with the Bulldogs coming to town next. No SEC has managed to beat Nick Saban three years in a row, by the way.
Kelly told everyone at Media Days that his goals for 2016 were 15-0, an SEC title and a national championship. Scratch one already.