TALLAHASSEE — Florida State's 38-17 comeback win over Wake Forest on Saturday was a nice way to start the second half of coach Willie Taggart's inaugural season.
It was certainly better than how the first half went — with a 21-point home drubbing by Virginia Tech and collapse at Miami bookending a stretch of unexpected mediocrity.
With the stretch run looming for the Seminoles (4-3, 2-3 ACC), Saturday's homecoming performance at Doak Campbell Stadium showed some reasons for optimism but a lot of room to grow if FSU hopes to go from another team in a ho-hum league into a future championship contender.
"Climbing is easier than hanging on," Taggart said. "We're climbing."
That was evident, at times, on offense.
Freshman receiver Tre'Shaun Harrison made a nifty juke on his first career touchdown catch, a 21-yarder that showed why FSU has been high on his potential since signing day. Quarterback Deondre Francois continued to build on his confidence with 353 yards and two touchdowns. An offensive line using its seventh combination of starters in as many games didn't allow a sack.
The 'Noles also showed resilience they didn't have earlier in the year. Trailing 10-0 Saturday, defensive end Brian Burns pulled out a fourth-down sack that set up FSU's first scoring drive.
"That's just what our team needed — for somebody to make a play for us," Taggart said.
That's also what his team lacked against Virginia Tech, when a talented defense could never make the game-changing play it needed. It's also what his team couldn't do in its last game, when it blew a 20-point lead at Miami.
But there were plenty of signs that Taggart's team has a long way to climb, with problems that weren't costly against the middling Demon Deacons (3-4, 0-3) but will be fatal next week against No. 3 Clemson or next month against No. 4 Notre Dame.
FSU still had trouble with basics, even after an open date. Consider this three-play sequence in the second quarter: First, FSU lined up illegally, negating a Cam Akers rush. Next, Francois had to field a high snap before Akers was stuffed for no gain. Finally, Francois hit receiver Keith Gavin streaking down the left sideline for a big gain that would have put FSU inside the 10 … until Gavin fumbled into the end zone. Wake Forest was only able to knock the ball out because Gavin was holding it in his inside arm instead of the outside one.
As Wake Forest sped through one play every 12.7 seconds in the first quarter (scoring on two of its first three drives in the process), the Seminoles' tempo still wasn't fast enough.
The most startling problem is a run game that hasn't clicked, despite Taggart's history and his roster's talent.
FSU entered Saturday with one of the nation's five worst rushing attacks, despite Akers (who broke Dalvin Cook's freshman rushing record last year) and Jacques Patrick (another former five-star recruit). Facing one of the worst run defenses in the country, FSU had only 2.2 yards per rush at halftime.
Akers improved that number in the second half by ripping off a 58-yard touchdown run — only the third rush of 20-plus yards FSU has had all year.
"It's a big weight off my shoulders, just to break a long one," Akers said.
But that was the only one he got. Take away that explosive play, and FSU averaged only 2.6 yards per rush — slightly below its average entering the game.
So Taggart is right. The Seminoles have climbed some through his first seven games. But Saturday shows that they have a long way to go if they want to return to their old heights.
Contact Matt Baker at [email protected] Follow @MBakerTBTimes.