MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. – It had been a while since Florida State felt like this at the end of the season.
There were smiles and hugs, along with new hats and t-shirts. And, in the locker room at Hard Rock Stadium, there was the smell of citrus throughout the air.
The 11th-ranked Florida State football team capped off a dramatic midseason turnaround with a 33-32 win over No. 6 Michigan here at the Capital One Orange Bowl, a game that was every bit as tense, compelling and, in the end, memorable, as any the team has played over the past two years.
Hometown hero Dalvin Cook reminded the nation that, Heisman Trophy or not, there may not be a better player in college football.
Youngsters Deondre Francois and Nyqwan Murray enjoyed a redemptive tale that started with game-changing turnovers and ended with a game-winning touchdown over the head of an All-American defender.
And, as if the game needed any more theatrics, little-used freshman Keith Gavin turned the contest on its head by hesitating on a kickoff return, then breaking through the Wolverines’ coverage unit on the way to a 66-yard run that set up the Seminoles’ decisive score.
Any one of that quartet – Cook, Francois, Murray or Gavin – would deserve sole possession of the spotlight under ordinary circumstances.
But, after an extraordinary game, they’ll just have to share.
“This is what you’ve got to play for, to be able to make it to an Orange Bowl,” FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said. “Even though you didn’t win a national championship, to make it to an Orange Bowl, to play a team like Michigan, to play in an environment and atmosphere like this.
“Any time you keep score, that’s what you’ve got to play for.”
After starting their season 3-2, the Seminoles won seven of their last eight games to finish 10-3 and reach double-digit victories for the fifth straight season. They also snapped a two-game bowl skid to avoid becoming the first FSU team to drop three straight bowl games.
And, in the early goings, it appeared that all that would come easily.
Thanks to dominant efforts on both the offensive and defensive lines, Florida State made easy work of Michigan’s vaunted defense and raced to a 17-3 lead after one quarter.
Cook, who ran for 145 yards and a touchdown on his way to Orange Bowl MVP honors, opened the scoring with a two-yard plunge. And he set up a field goal by lining up as a receiver, racing past a Michigan defender and bringing in a deep pass for a 45-yard gain.
“Coach Fisher did a great job of knowing when to call (certain) plays and getting me in the right (situation) to make them,” Cook said. “And when he called my number, I just answered the bell.”
So too, however, did Michigan.
The Wolverines chipped away at their deficit with three field goals – all of them within the red zone – then finally broke through for a touchdown when Mike McCray picked off Francois at the FSU 14-yard line and returned it for a touchdown.
Michigan’s two-point conversion failed, and FSU led 20-15 after three quarters.
On the ensuing drive, Cook made a play that, on another night, would likely be the story of the game.
Facing a third-and-22 from their FSU’s 13-yard line, Cook broke loose for a 71-yard run down the left sideline, a play that would have been a touchdown had officials not ruled that he narrowly stepped out of bounds at the Michigan 16.
“I actually think I didn’t step out, but you know,” Cook said. “It was third-and-22 and Coach Fisher called what we called all year. I felt like I could take advantage of that moment, because I just felt like (the Michigan defenders) did think I could break out at that point in time.”
They were wrong. And four plays later Francois scampered into the end zone for a touchdown that put FSU up 27-15 with 11:38 to go in the game.
After the FSU defense forced a punt on the ensuing drive, the drama appeared to be over. Instead, it was just getting started.
The Seminoles punted on their next possession, and a targeting penalty issued to safety Trey Marshall led to good field position for the Wolverines and a touchdown that made it 27-22.
A quick drive and another punt with less than five minutes to go gave the ball back to Michigan and, after sputtering on offense for much of the night, the Wolverines embarked on an impressive, five-play, 61-yard touchdown drive to take their first lead of the night.
In that moment – a 30-yard scoring run by Michigan’s Chris Evans – the dynamic that had held for the entire night suddenly reversed: Wolverines fans reveled while FSU fans sat in stunned silence.
That wouldn’t last long.
Gavin’s kickoff helped the Seminoles get back on top and, despite one more heart-in-throat moment when Michigan blocked an extra-point attempt and returned it for two points, FSU held on for a most satisfying victory.
“He can hit it and, I’m going to tell you, Keith is a guy who I think is going to be a really, really good player,” Fisher said. “The guy is a really talented guy. He’s a young freshman, just coming along. Sometimes it takes something like that to get you over the hump. And that was a big, big-time play.”
FSU’s defense sealed it for good when freshman Carlos Becker picked off Wilson Speight’s fourth-down pass near midfield.
Three kneel-downs and the Seminoles could celebrate.
Francois completed just 9 of 27 passes, but for 222 yards and two scores, both to Murray.
And Murray made up for an early fumble on a punt return by striking for scores of 92 and 12 yards. His 92-yarder, which came in the first quarter, was the longest touchdown play in Orange Bowl history.
But his second touchdown, in which he leapt over the head of Michigan’s Jourdan Lewis in the back of the end zone, was even more impressive.
“As soon as the ball left my hand, I knew (Murray) was going to come down with it,” Francois said. “God blessed him with the ability to go up and make that catch.”
FSU’s defense enjoyed an appropriate finale, too. The Seminoles limited Michigan to just 252 yards of total offense and racked up three sacks to bring their nation’s-best season total to 50.
And that despite being on the field for more than 34 minutes.
Miami native Matthew Thomas had perhaps his finest game as a Seminole, posting 15 tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss. And defensive tackle Derrick Nnadi wreaked havoc in the Michigan backfield, helping to corral a Wolverines rushing attack that entered the game as one of the nation’s best.
The Wolverines averaged more than 220 yards per game this season. Against FSU, they had 89.
And in one more stroke of good news, both Thomas and Nnadi announced they would be returning for their senior seasons.
Perhaps it’s appropriate, then, that Fisher looked both back and forward during his post-game press conference.
“I’d like to say a special thanks to our seniors,” he said. “Not just for what they did this year, but for what they’ve done for four years. … the leadership they’ve provided.
“The legacy these seniors left, (combined) with the youth and talent on this team, boy, the future looks good.”