MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. – Even after a heartbreaking loss to the Miami Hurricanes, the latest in a series full of them, Willie Taggart saw clear signs of progress from his Florida State football team here on Saturday night.
And, for nearly three quarters, those signs were obvious:
An aggressive defense that had the Seminoles on the right side of the turnover margin. Improved special teams that accounted for a punt-return touchdown and two tough field goals. And a creative offense that was able to stay ahead of the chains and keep Miami’s defenders at bay.
It was perhaps FSU’s most encouraging stretch of the season, and the Seminoles were rewarded in kind with a 20-point lead that had a packed Hard Rock Stadium reeling in stunned silence.
“Our guys were playing well,” FSU coach Willie Taggart said. “Probably by far the best we played all year.”
But with progress sometimes comes pain, and there was plenty of that in the Seminoles’ locker room, too.
Because after building that lead and moving well on their way to what would have been a season-changing victory, FSU saw turnovers and penalties allow the No. 17 Hurricanes back into the game and, eventually, lead to a 28-27 loss.
After running off seven consecutive victories over Miami from 2010-16, FSU has lost consecutive games to the Hurricanes for the first time since 2004.
That’s also the last time Miami beat FSU in South Florida. The Hurricanes have won eight one-point games over the Seminoles, the first of which came in 1959.
“I guess that’s why it’s really frustrating, I did see signs of progress,” Taggart said. “But we didn’t finish. We came here to win, and we didn’t win.”
For much of the afternoon, Florida State perfectly followed its script for an upset.
The Seminoles had taken care of the ball, had made Miami’s freshman quarterback look like a freshman and got two important field goals from kicker Ricky Aguayo, including a 53-yarder at the end of the second quarter.
By the time D.J. Matthews took a punt return 74 yards for a touchdown early in the third, the Seminoles seemed headed for a lopsided victory that would have reverberated around the college football world.
But what took most of the afternoon to build took only a few minutes to unravel.
Thanks to two turnovers deep in FSU territory, one a strip-sack fumble and one an interception, the Hurricanes trimmed their deficit from 20 points to six in the span of just 42 seconds.
And – in what might be considered another sign of progress – the Seminoles at that time seemed to have an answer when they connected on a 42-yard double-pass from Deondre Francois to Matthews, and from Matthews to Keith Gavin.
Gavin, all alone down the left sideline, had an easy touchdown. But officials ruled that Francois’ first throw was a forward pass, which made Matthews’ throw illegal.
The Seminoles were penalized five yards, then later missed a field goal at the end of the drive. The Hurricanes took their first and only lead on their ensuing possession.
TV replays suggested that Francois’ pass was close enough to a lateral to merit a review, but Taggart said that he was told otherwise.
“He said it was in front of him,” Taggart said. “It wasn’t close enough (for review).”
Center Alec Eberle was so busy running downfield to celebrate with Gavin, that he didn’t even see the yellow flags on the field.
Right call or not, there was no denying its impact.
“It hurts,” Eberle said. “A touchdown would have helped a lot. But it is what it is.”
“I saw a touchdown,” added defensive end Brian Burns, who had three tackles for loss and forced two fumbles.
Despite that swing of events, there was still nearly 12 minutes to play when Miami moved ahead, and the Seminoles had three opportunities with the ball during that time.
But the Hurricanes’ second-ranked defense, which had looked ordinary for much of the first half, tightened up and forced three punts to effectively seal the game.
All told, FSU managed 200 yards of offense, 45 which came in the second half.
“We played a pretty solid game, pretty solid first half,” Eberle said. “We were moving guys off the ball. We just had little hiccups here and there.”
Maybe, then, it’s a good time for FSU’s bye week. The Seminoles went toe-to-toe with the No. 17 team in the country, felt like they should have won the game, and have several positives on which to build as they move into the second half of their season.
And Taggart’s agenda for the next two weeks is simple:
“Our guys know how to play football,” he said. “We have to teach them how to win again.”
But after another close loss to Miami, and after feeling emotions shared by FSU football players across multiple generations, there weren’t many in the Seminoles’ locker room that were ready for a week off.
They’ll have to wait until Oct. 20, when Wake Forest visits Doak Campbell Stadium.
“I wish,” defensive end Brian Burns said, “I could get out and play again.”