GAINESVILLE, Fla. – There’s been a lot of talk about numbers around Florida State in recent weeks.
From the 35-year streak of bowl games and 40-year streak of winning seasons that the Seminoles still hope to preserve, to the four wins that they brought with them to Gainesville.
But the numbers on the scoreboard at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on Saturday afternoon were in FSU’s favor – Seminoles 38, Gators 22 – which brought about a number never before seen in school history:
Five straight wins over UF, for the first time in the 62-year history of the rivalry.
“Think about something,” FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said. “In a year that everybody said was a lost year, you just accomplished something that has never been accomplished in Florida State history.
“Those kids, they believed in what they had to do, they kept playing and fighting forward and were able to win five in a row (over UF), which has never been done. That’s a tremendous accomplishment.”
With their latest triumph over the Gators in the books – FSU (5-6) has now won seven of eight over UF (4-7) for the first time in school history, too – the Seminoles need only to beat Louisiana-Monroe of the Sun Belt Conference next week at home to reach six wins and earn a 36th consecutive trip to a bowl game.
Do that, and FSU will have a chance to finish with a winning record for a 41st straight season. Both of those streaks are the longest active in the nation.
“Nobody in the country wants to start how we started,” said sophomore cornerback Levonta Taylor, who grabbed the first two interceptions of his career and returned the second 18 yards for a touchdown.
“But it’s all about how you finish. And right now, we want to go make a bowl and win that bowl game, too.”
A month ago, common sense suggested that a trip to Florida would be the biggest hurdle to FSU’s late-season turnaround.
But thanks to an opportunistic defense and an offense that found its stride in the second half, the Seminoles made quick work of the Gators, who finished their season with losses in six of their last seven games.
FSU scored 28 points off of four Florida turnovers, starting with a strip-sack from Brian Burns that Jacob Pugh returned for a score and a 7-0 lead.
The teams then traded interceptions – and scores – with Florida answering after picking off James Blackman at the FSU 10-yard line, and the Seminoles reclaiming the lead thanks to Taylor’s first interception at the UF 20.
Blackman hit Nyqwan Murray for a touchdown on that ensuing drive. A few moments later, Taylor did all the work himself by intercepting another pass at the 18 and returning it, untouched, for a touchdown that made it 24-7.
By halftime, 28 of the game’s 31 total points had come after turnovers.
“Turnovers are contagious,” Taylor said. “On the first one, we scored off it. And on the second one, we put points on the board with it. You just have to make takeaways like that.”
And the Seminoles nearly tacked on another pick-six in the fourth quarter, when Matthew Thomas stepped in front of a pass and appeared to bring it into the end zone.
Never mind that officials later ruled that Thomas’ knee was down before he crossed the plane: Blackman went on to hit Auden Tate for a three-yard touchdown that made it 38-16 and tied FSU’s all-time scoring mark in “The Swamp.”
Besides, taking the points off the board allowed the Seminoles to drain another three minutes off the clock before striking the decisive blow.
“That last touchdown was a key touchdown that really set us ahead,” center Alec Eberle said. “Once you get over that and it’s past a two-score game, that’s depleting to the other team.”
While Blackman’s numbers weren’t gaudy (10-21, 128 yards, two TDs, one interception), the freshman might have played one of his best games of the season.
He connected with Murray for gains of 29 and 21 yards, and made one of the more important plays of the second half when he found Ermon Lane in stride for a 39-yard gain on a second-and-19 at the end of the third quarter.
More importantly, he was the best quarterback on the field on Saturday afternoon.
Thanks to a relentless FSU pass rush, Florida’s Feleipe Franks endured a mostly miserable afternoon. The Seminoles sacked the redshirt freshman five times, logged eight hurries and forced four turnovers – three interceptions and a fumble.
A native of nearby Crawfordville, Fla., Franks finished 18 of 39 for 184 yards and two scores.
“You can feel it,” defensive end Brian Burns. “We really got after him. All of us – (Josh) Sweat, (Josh) Kaindoh, (Derrick) Nnadi, (Demarcus) Christmas, Wally (Aime). Everybody got after him today.
“Of course he felt that pressure, and that’s what led to those picks.”
The Gators added one more last-minute touchdown in the game’s final minute, but the clock hit zero a few moments later, and with it came all the usual revelry that comes when Florida State beats Florida.
Senior Derrick Nnadi, FSU’s designated sod captain, followed in the footsteps of former teammates DeMarcus Walker and Terrance Smith and secured some orange-and-blue turf to be buried in Tallahassee.
And FSU’s stuffed Gator head, a staple on the Seminoles’ sideline after wins over UF, made its usual laps around the field and in the locker room.
— Derwin James Jr (@derwinjames6) November 25, 2017
For a long stretch of the mid-2000s, there wasn’t much celebrating on the Seminoles’ sidelines after games against Florida.
Now, it’s a regular occurrence.
In his post-game press conference Fisher was asked if, after five straight and seven of eight, beating Florida ever gets old.
“No,” he said, shaking his head with a laugh.
“No matter what,” he added, “even though the records weren’t what they were before (in years past), it’s still Florida State-Florida. It means a lot.”