TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – In a back-and-forth duel between Heisman contenders, it was Clemson’s Deshaun Watson who delivered the decisive blow on Saturday night.
Watson accounted for 430 yards of offense and two touchdowns – including a 34-yard score to Jordan Leggett that proved to be the game-winner – as the No. 3 Tigers escaped with a 37-34 victory over No. 12 Florida State here at Doak Campbell Stadium.
Watson’s effort countered an outstanding effort from Florida State’s Dalvin Cook, who ran for 169 yards and a career-high four touchdowns.
“That game was a heavyweight fight. They’re going to throw haymakers, we’re going to throw haymakers,” FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said. “We kept going at each other. We had an opportunity to seal it back up or win it at the end and we didn’t get it done.”
Florida State fell into a 14-0 hole after 15 minutes, but, thanks to Cook, stormed back and outscored the Tigers 21-6 over the second and third quarters.
The Miami native got the Seminoles on the board with a 4-yard TD run midway through the fourth quarter, and he gave them their first lead with a 43-yard scoring scamper in the third.
That made the score 21-20, and Cook extended it 28-20 when he took his next carry 70 yards to the end zone.
With that run, Cook joined Warrick Dunn (1994-96) as the only Seminoles to rush for 1,000 yards in three straight seasons.
“They were giving us what we wanted all game,” Cook said. “… We knew what they were going to do. They were going to stack the box and try to take the run away. We tried to establish the passing game early and I think we did that pretty good and the running game just opened up in the second half.”
For all of Cook’s heroics, though, it was a run that didn’t count that had Fisher fuming after the game.
Clinging to a 28-26 lead after a Clemson touchdown and a failed two-point attempt, Cook took his first-down carry down the right sideline for what appeared to be a gain of about 60 yards.
Instead, officials flagged fullback Freddie Stevenson for an illegal block that nullified the run and moved the Seminoles behind the chains.
Replays showed Stevenson colliding with a Clemson defender’s hip, but the play otherwise looked like a standard block.
“It was ridiculous,” Fisher said. “It was not a chop.”
Added Cook, “It was a legal block… that was a call you can’t make in games like that.”
In the aftermath of the play, officials issued an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty to the FSU sideline, which moved the Seminoles back even farther.
So instead of a first down deep in Clemson territory, FSU instead faced first-and-25 from its own 10. Three plays later, the Seminoles were forced to punt.
“That was a huge call in the game,” Fisher said. “We still had chances in the game to win after that. But it is ridiculous.”
The drama, however, was far from finished.
Clemson regained the lead with an eight-play drive that ended in a 46-yard field goal from Greg Huegel.
The Seminoles then answered with a five-play, 80-yard drive that ended with Cook’s fourth score of the night, an eight-yard run that made it 34-29. FSU attempted a two-point conversion in an effort to stretch the lead to seven, but Deondre Francois’ pass to Travis Rudolph fell incomplete.
That proved significant, as Clemson took just five plays to march 75 yards for a score. And when Watson found Mike Williams for two points – a conversion the Tigers likely would not have attempted down seven – it gave FSU a three-point deficit.
FSU made it as deep as the Clemson 34-yard line on the ensuing drive and appeared to be in good position to at least attempt a game-tying. But more penalties and some untimely sacks snuffed out the Seminoles’ rally.
Back-to-back false start flags moved FSU back to the 44 without even snapping the ball. Francois then threw a pair of incompletions before being sacked for a loss of 12 on third-and-20, which forced the Seminoles to use their final timeout.
Hoping for a miracle, Francois was sacked once more on fourth-and-32 to end the game.
“When we gave up sacks, that’s mostly because we beat ourselves,” junior left tackle Roderick Johnson said. “…We’re still working on techniques and fundamentals and things like that, and still putting ourselves in place to get in front of defenders and block them.”
Francois was sacked six times while absorbing several heavy hits. He left the game for a single play in the fourth quarter after being driven into the ground and losing his helmet.
Fisher felt after the game that some of the shots on Francois were illegal and should have drawn targeting penalties. FSU safety Trey Marshall was ejected for targeting in the fourth quarter.
“He got hit with the crown of the helmet right in the chest,” Fisher said. “(Francois) gets killed in Miami and he gets killed here. Both of them bad. Real bad.”
Francois still managed to complete 17 of 35 passes for 286 yards, a touchdown and an interception.
The Seminoles were flagged 13 times for 111 yards.
Otherwise, FSU closely followed its blueprint for an upset. The Seminoles turned two Clemson turnovers into 14 points, and they twice held the Tigers to field goals after entering the red zone.
“Guys battled. They played hard, left their guts on the line,” Fisher said. “They played very hard, but we’ve got to play better.”
With senior receiver Jesus Wilson sidelined by a foot injury, sophomore Nyqwan Murray filled in with the finest game of his career. The Orlando native caught six passes for 96 yards and the first touchdown of his career.
That was part of an FSU offense that amassed 449 total yards and averaged 7.1 yards per play against a Clemson defense that came into the game allowing just 298.6 yards per contest.
Marshall led the FSU defense with 11 tackles (including eight solo stops) and DeMarcus Walker added 10 tackles and two pass deflections.
The Tigers finished with 511 yards of total offense, but needed 81 plays to get there.
“(The defense) had their moments,” Fisher said. “They really stopped them, and played well, played physical. Of course, Clemson came back and made some plays. Our guys played hard. They played physical, played hard.
“Again, they’ve just got to (make) those two or three critical plays.”
FSU (5-3, 2-3 ACC) visits North Carolina State next week. Clemson (7-0, 5-0) hosts Syracuse.