By Tim Linafelt
Seminoles.com Senior Writer
@Tim_Linafelt on Twitter
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – On a night when Florida State’s offense sputtered, the Seminoles’ did enough heavy lifting for both sides.
Florida had an early lead, momentum and – after grabbing their third interception of the first quarter – a short field.
But Florida State linebacker Terrance Smith intercepted a deflected pass and returned it 94 yards for a touchdown that sparked No. 3 FSU to a 24-19 victory over the Gators at Doak Campbell Stadium.
“We needed that play. We needed that momentum swing,” Smith said. “Everybody feeds off of stuff like that.”
Freshman running back Dalvin Cook added career highs in yards (144) and carries (24) for the Seminoles (12-0), who overcame five turnovers to earn their 28th consecutive victory.
They’ll likely clinch a spot in the College Football Playoff with a win over Georgia Tech (10-2) in next week’s ACC Championship Game.
“It’s always good to beat the Gators,” senior receiver Rashad Greene said. “But, at the same time, we still have a lot of work to do.”
Florida (6-5) had several opportunities to send dismissed coach Will Muschamp out as a winner during his final game.
Winston threw interceptions on three of FSU’s four first-quarter drives, but the Gators’ offense could only manage three field goals.
“That was the key to the game,” FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said. “Those three turnovers and they all became field goals. Now, it’s a two possession game and – bam.”
Smith’s interception launched a run of 21 straight FSU points capped by two touchdown passes from Winston to tight end Nick O’Leary.
Winston finished just 12 of 24 with a career low in passing yards (125) and a career high for interceptions (four). And FSU finished with more rushing yards than passing yards for the first time since a win over Bethune-Cookman last season.
“I think I was pretty consistent,” Winston said. “I made a few mistakes that hurt us, but, like I said, it’s family here. And the defense had my back. Offense had my back.”
“Just a hair off,” Fisher said. “He was trying to force a play here and there, and you get out of rhythm. …
“Sometimes the putts go in, sometimes they don’t.”
Even with Winston struggling some, FSU had a chance to put the game away late in the second quarter. Holding a 21-9 lead with 1:17 on the clock and the ball at their own 35-yard line, the Seminoles were derailed by two incompletions and a false start penalty.
Even worse, Florida’s punt-block team got to FSU’s Cason Beatty, forcing what was a officially scored a fumble that gave the Gators possession on the Seminoles’ 15-yard line.
UF quarterback Treon Harris connected with tight end Clay Burton for a touchdown on the next play.
And Gators kicker Austin Hardin made his fourth field goal of the night early in the third quarter, a 32-yarder that cut FSU’s lead to two.
The teams then traded possessions – and a few tense moments – but neither could change the scoreboard until Roberto Aguayo’s 37-yard field goal with 3:23 left in the fourth quarter.
Aided by a third-down pass interference penalty, the Gators’ last-minute rally reached midfield.
But Harris’ fourth-down throw was a little off-target and receiver Demarcus Robinson couldn’t hang on to it.
“We’ve had our opportunities,” Muschamp said. “You look at two other games where we have the game in hand and we had our opportunity to get it done and we didn’t get it done.
“It falls on my shoulders and that’s why they’re going to be looking for a coach.’
FSU’s defense had perhaps its best performance of the season. UF’s 282 total yards marked the second-lowest total allowed by the Seminoles this year (Wake Forest, 126).
Linebacker Reggie Northrup led the way with 11 tackles, bringing his season total to 101. He’s the first FSU defender to reach the 100-tackle plateau since Buster Davis in 2006.
“We did what we had to do at the right time,” Northrup said. “It’s a mental thing. You’ve got to want to do it. You’ve got to really focus and tune in to your assignment, especially in the red zone.”
Modern college football is different than years past, when Florida State could relish in a win over the Gators for more than a month leading up to its bowl game.
Georgia Tech, a 30-24, overtime winner over No. 9 Georgia on Saturday, still stands between FSU and its ultimate goal.
But that didn’t stop the Seminoles from drinking this one in a bit.
Fifth-year senior Cameron Erving, who finished his career 4-1 against UF, carried FSU’s infamous stuffed alligator head off the field and into the locker room.
Once there, players took turns taking pictures with it while DJ Khaled’s “All I Do Is Win,” blared in the background.
For the 28th straight game, that’s all they’ve done.
“It’s definitely something special,” Erving said. “Guys can’t say that they were so successful against these teams (Florida and Miami). It’s all attributed to our coaching and guys that care about each other.”