ATLANTA — It was billed at the Greatest Opener of All Time, but the goat turned out to be special teams Saturday night.
Florida State’s special teams, that is.
While both sides had their fair share of issues as No. 1 Alabama pulled out a 24-7 victory against No. 3 Florida State, Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher had absolutely no trouble pinpointing where things went wrong against his former boss, Nick Saban, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
“The big thing was the momentum swings and the special teams in the second half,” he said. “When you get momentum, I always talk about that all the time. Momentum is a thing we don’t — it’s hard to swing, especially when you play good people.”
Fisher was referring to a blocked punt and a forced fumble on a kick return that helped Alabama pull away in what was otherwise a fairly even defensive struggle for most of the night.
Alabama only finished with a 269-250 edge in total yards, and neither offense was particularly effective on third downs (7 for 29 combined). The Seminoles didn’t score a point on their last 11 possessions.
But the setbacks also came on the heels of a blocked 37-yard field-goal attempt by Minkah Fitzpatrick at the end of the first half, which not only kept FSU from tying the game, but squandered a huge opportunity as the Seminoles were set to receive the second-half kickoff.
“Another big momentum swing,” Fisher admitted.
Instead, Alabama took over the game in the third quarter, beginning with running back Damien Harris making the impressive punt block, recovered by freshman Dylan Moses. It gave Alabama first down at the FSU 6.
The Bama special teams has taken over on ABC. pic.twitter.com/gk6B3yrfOK
— ESPN (@espn) September 3, 2017
“They didn’t do a whole lot of stuff that they haven’t done in the past, so I think our coaches did a really good job of preparing our team to take advantage of some situations in the kicking game,” Saban said. “The blocked punt was good scheme based on their protection and how they protect. Should have scooped it and scored it instead of falling on it, but sometimes freshmen are freshmen.”
Yet, Moses quickly made up for the minor gaffe.
Although the Crimson Tide couldn’t capitalize with a touchdown, and settled for a short field goal, he made FSU kick returner Keith Gavin pay for his mistake to try and make something happen, with linebacker Keith Holcombe recovering the loose ball.
“He played a great game, and he just made a bad decision,” Fisher said about Gavin, who made 8 receptions for 61 yards. “He thought he was out farther, wasn’t as close to the goal line, and he should have just let the ball go. Just made a poor decision, and tried to get it out and actually fumbled. Those are big, critical plays in the game.”
Given a second chance, this time at the FSU 11, Alabama didn’t mess around with the play-calling and Harris went 11 yards up the gut for the decisive touchdown. Ahead 21-7, the Crimson Tide was able to rely on their defense, and Florida State never crossed midfield again.
Senior cornerback Levi Wallace and sophomore linebacker Mack Wilson picked off Deondre Francois’ next 2 pass attempts, and the quarterback completed just 5 passes in the second half.
He finished 19 for 33 for 201 yards and left the game late with an apparent leg/knee injury. Fisher was vague about its severity, preferring to wait until all test results were in.
Ironically, Alabama’s special teams were otherwise pretty abysmal. Senior JK Scott shanked a 9-yard punt, only to be bailed out by his defense after FSU had first down at the Crimson Tide 31 — and the Seminoles countered with a 12-yard punt.
Former Ole Miss kicker Andy Pappanastos made 3 field goals (35, 25 and 33 yards), but also missed 2 (42 and 41).
But Alabama still found a way to win, which Saban was proud of afterward.
“We just made too many mistakes,” Florida State safety Derwin James said.
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