RALEIGH, N.C. – Playing in a stadium that has dealt Florida State more than its share of heartbreak over the last 20 years, the Seminoles returned the favor to North Carolina State on Saturday night.
With FSU trailing or tied for the first 56-plus minutes, quarterback Deondre Francois needed just five plays to march the offense 83 yards for a late touchdown that gave the Seminoles their only lead of the game.
Francois’ 19-yard touchdown pass to Travis Rudolph, thrown as he was falling backward in the face of an all-out blitz, proved to be the difference in the Seminoles’ 24-20 victory, which improves FSU to 6-3 (3-3 in ACC play) headed into Friday’s home game against Boston College.
“I feel good right now,” FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said. “I’m not going to lie.”
And with good reason.
The Seminoles now own back-to-back wins in NC State’s Carter-Finley Stadium for the first time since 1994-96.
And although FSU first exorcised those demons with a win here two years ago, this one might have been extra cathartic.
The Seminoles rallied from deficits of 10-3 and 20-10, using a pair of touchdowns in the second half to complete their comeback.
But while the offense did its job – and gave Francois his first fourth-quarter comeback victory in the process – it wasn’t until the defense held up its end of the bargain that the Seminoles could exhale.
Taking over with 3:09 to play, the Wolfpack drove as deep as the 24-yard line and conjured bitter memories of dramatic victories over FSU in 2010 in 2012.
But the FSU defense flipped the script this time, forcing a loss of two and then three consecutive incompletions to preserve the win.
Safe to say it was a significant moment for a defense that surrendered three fourth-quarter touchdowns to Clemson last week.
“We had to do what we had to do in the moment,” safety Ermon Lane said. “We weren’t think of anything but what we had to do.”
Francois, meanwhile, threw for 330 yards and a touchdown to top the 300-yard mark for the fourth time this season.
More importantly, the redshirt freshman rose to the occasion after NC State focused its efforts on slowing down star running back Dalvin Cook.
By and large, those efforts worked: Cook finished with 18 carries for 65 yards, his lowest output since Week 3 at Louisville.
But the Wolfpack couldn’t stop everything. After a slow first half, Francois excelled in the second and threw for 228 yards across the third and fourth quarters.
“They’ve got a good (defensive) front and that’s what they’ve done,” Fisher said. “…If they’re going to play that, you’ve got to have a two-headed monster. You’ve got to be able to throw and run.”
A little luck doesn’t hurt, either. Francois pulled an ace when, just one play before his TD pass to Rudolph, NC State’s Shawn Boone dropped a potential interception in the end zone.
From despair to jubilation in the span of a few seconds.
“How many times have you seen that? I’ve seen it happen to us,” Fisher said. “You don’t take advantage of an opportunity and all of a sudden (you regret it) the next play.”
Added Francois, “We all say the next play is the most important play. And that’s what I was saying to myself. Just focus on the next play, try to get the ball to the end zone.”
Although Rudolph caught the decisive score, sophomore Nyqwan Murray was FSU’s most dangerous receiving threat for the second straight week.
Seven days removed from a breakout performance against Clemson, Murray tormented the Wolfpack secondary for nine catches for 153 yards.
Both of those figures improved on career highs set last week.
“There’s still a lot he can really clean up and he knows that,” Fisher said. “… But I’m going to tell you, he has a chance to be a very good player.”
The Wolfpack outgained FSU 469-393, however that figure hides the fact that NC State gained just 184 yards and scored only seven points after halftime.
That’s thanks in large part to another outstanding effort from senior DeMarcus Walker (10 tackles, two sacks) and steady improvement from a secondary that was missing three starting safeties.
Junior Trey Marshall, who missed the first half due to a targeting penalty incurred in last week’s contest, missed the game with concussion-like symptoms.
Fisher said he had hoped that Marshall could play, but that his symptoms had not cleared by the end of the week.
“Knowing him, he was wanted to play. You can bank on that,” Fisher said. “It was actually a small, lingering thing.”