Laces Out: Penn State's not-so-secret weapon in spotlight, Florida State finds an inflection point


The halfway point of the 2021 season is not in sight yet, but it's obvious that the road to the College Football Playoff is not going to be as predictable as everyone thought. Behind juggernauts Alabama and Georgia, there's a dozen or so teams who believe their end-of-season championship goals remain within reach, including a couple whose unbeaten run through five weeks will be put to the test Saturday.

I'll be watching two programs closely during Week 6, including one that is completely off the national radar, while the rest of you worry about Oklahoma-Texas in Dallas, several pivotal matchups in the SEC and Michigan's primetime affair at Nebraska.

Let's take a look at what we learned from Week 5 and what's ahead this weekend.

A game-changer

When you think of Penn State at its best offensively from a historical standpoint, wide-shouldered running backs dominate the picture with an occasional big play in the passing game keeping the defense honest. But the unbeaten Nittany Lions are doing things a bit differently this season, taking advantage of a veteran leader playing the best football of his career and potentially the 2022 NFL Draft's top wide receiver on the outside.

If you're unfamiliar with Jahan Dotson, he'll be a recognizable face nationally after Saturday's battle at Iowa.

Earlier this season at Wisconsin, you could tell coach James Franklin was on the verge of losing his headset over multiple failed attempts at getting Dotson the ball in space in the third quarter. This coming after the playmaker had already burned the Badgers for a 49-yard score earlier in the game. 

Franklin put his hand over his chin with pursed lips after a failed deep shot, pleading with QB Sean Clifford to take his time when Dotson is wide open past the secondary. With 9:51 to play, the Clifford to Dotson connection finally worked to near perfection on a 42-yard completion that set up Penn State's game-winning touchdown.

Penn State beat Wisconsin in front of a hostile crowd, and Dotson finished with five catches for 102 yards, sans the handful of near-misses that would've broke open a defensive slugfest on the road.

Since that point, Clifford and Dotson have been nearly unstoppable as a tandem during Penn State's impressive start. Dotson is the only Big Ten pass-catcher with at least one touchdown reception in every game this season, and he'll be a focal point of the defensive game plan for the Hawkeyes this weekend as Iowa tries to eliminate his impact.

Good luck with that. When teams have taken away second-level throws to Dotson this fall, Penn State offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich has found other ways of getting the ball in his hands. It's impossible to defend a quick-screen throw in his direction, and that's part of the reason Dotson ranks sixth in total catches (35) among Power Five wideouts.

Iowa has recorded a nation-leading 12 interceptions this season, six coming in last week's steamroll of previously-unbeaten Maryland. Keep an eye on this chess match between coaching staffs and how many gash plays the Nittany Lions can generate through the best player on the field.

A glimmer of hope

Mike Norvell put his hands on his knees and bent over at the waist for a brief moment during Florida State's recent win over Syracuse. The moment came late in the fourth quarter with his team nursing a seven-point lead while in need of a third-down conversion to move forward with their first win. But execution failures surfaced again, this time in the form of an errant bubble screen from quarterback Jordan Travis that was picked off and led to a game-tying score for the Orange.

The crowd let out an audible sigh of frustration before Florida State responded with a game-winning drive, backed by a 25-yard run on third down from Travis, whose Houdini act in the face of pressure put the Seminoles in range to win with a field goal.

For a winless team, this was a positive sign and perhaps a confidence-builder moving forward.

Little by little, Norvell is beginning to make strides with this team, and you could highlight the second half of their Week 4 loss to Louisville as a potential inflection point. The 'Noles trailed 31-13 at the break and walked into what had to resemble a morgue more than a locker room at Doak Campbell Stadium, collecting themselves before putting together a much better effort over the final two quarters of play.

In fact, Florida State had possession with a chance to tie the game before an underthrown deep shot from McKenzie Milton was picked off near the 5-yard line with 48 seconds remaining. That was it for the former UCF star's crack at the starting job after he finished with a 14.8 QBR and failed to deliver in crunch time.

You could tell after the game that Norvell knew an opportunity slipped through Florida State's grasp. And it was the first time this season he showed a heightened level of ferocity at the podium.

"I'm pissed off that we're 0-4," Norvell said last week, prior to Saturday's win. "We can bring up how many years it's been; I don't really get -- I can't control that. I can control this team, at this moment, and right now with the opportunity. So, we're going to work our butts off to go get better. And we're going to do it the right way. And we're gonna have a standard how we operate. It's going to be the same standard that we're gonna ask them to do in the classroom, the same standard of everything that we do. I'm gonna hold myself to it because I gotta be the example.

"And you know what? Does that mean I'm not gonna make mistakes? I'll probably make a mistake. Might make one today, might make one tomorrow. I will respond to that. And so, that's the team I want, because I've seen it work.

Norvell can't afford to make any public promises given the temperature of his seat in Tallahassee, Florida, but he can look in the mirror this week and know his coaching staff and players haven't yet given up on the season, which is part of the battle when you're in the process of climbing out the cellar. Negativity grows like cancer, but inside the program, Norvell is doing what he can to eradicate such a diagnosis.

It'll be interesting to see what level of fight FSU brings to the field Saturday against North Carolina, a team that has fought its own battles with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde this season.