TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – DeMarcus Walker had a history lesson to share in the wake of Florida State’s 20-19 victory at Miami on Saturday night. “For all the true, real Nole fans out there – what happened to the ‘89 team?” the senior defensive end asked. “And how did they finish?” No need to flip through your textbooks:
The 1989 FSU football team began the season ranked No. 6 in the country, only to stumble out of the gate with two straight losses – one to Brett Favre-led Southern Mississippi in the season opener, and another to the Clemson Tigers a week later.
Those Seminoles, however, rallied past those two losses to reel off 10 straight victories, including wins over Miami and Florida, as well as Nebraska in the Fiesta Bowl, to end up 10-2 and ranked third.
It was the third year of FSU’s famed “dynasty era,” in which the Seminoles ended their year ranked No. 4 or higher for 14 straight seasons.
Twenty-seven years and two tough losses later, Walker and the Seminoles are looking to repeat a little bit of history in 2016.
Saturday in Miami was a great place to start.
“We had the attitude,” Walker said. “We knew what we were coming into. The two losses don’t phase us.”
Indeed, backed into a corner with their archrivals threatening to end a six-year run of dominance, the Seminoles responded with their most inspired effort of the season.
Especially on defense.
Charles Kelly’s group, embattled after difficult tests against Ole Miss, Louisville and North Carolina, wasted no time showing that this game would be different.
On Miami’s first play from scrimmage, junior linebacker Jacob Pugh charged in from the right side, grabbed UM quarterback Brad Kaaya and drove him into the ground for a five-yard sack.
The Hurricanes couldn’t recover and, two plays later, were forced to punt. It was the first three-and-out forced by the Seminoles on opening drive this season.
Even better – FSU forced another on Miami’s next possession.
“It’s the Florida State-Miami game,” junior defensive tackle Derrick Nnadi said. “It’s one of the biggest rivalries in college sports. We really had to step it up.”
With the Seminoles’ offense slow to get going, it was the defense that held the Hurricanes in check long enough for Deondre Francois and Dalvin Cook to find their stride.
They did it with a relentless, physical pursuit of Kaaya that led to three sacks and two more hurries and reportedly left the UM quarterback with a chipped tooth.
And they did it with a swarming run defense that held Miami’s tailback tandem of Mark Walton and Joe Yearby to just 78 combined rushing yards.
All told, Miami’s 276 total yards didn’t just make up the Hurricanes’ lowest output of the season. It was the lowest total allowed by the Seminoles all year – including FCS Charleston Southern.
According to Fisher, the defense needed a night like this.
“I think they did, big-time,” Fisher said. “I’ve said it all along: They’re in the right place, the guys want to do well. They’ve just got to relax and learn to play well and have the confidence to do it. They’ll get confidence as they continue to grow.”
Added Nnadi: “Like in boxing – you can get knocked out. It’s all about how many times you get up. If you get knocked out three times, you’ve got to get up three times.”
With the FSU defense having answered the bell, the Seminoles’ offense delivered a few haymakers of their own in the second half.
Francois – himself the recipient of several heavy hits – delivered two touchdown strikes, and running back Dalvin Cook continued his evolution as a receiver by catching a 59-yard TD early in the third quarter.
And there were plenty of moments that didn’t grab the headlines but impacted the game nonetheless. Like Mavin Saunders’ leaping, 11-yard grab on third-and-2 that led to a touchdown. Or Jesus Wilson going over the middle to make a catch despite knowing that a UM defender was waiting to deliver a punishing hit.
Or Tarvarus McFadden’s interception in the end zone that put a halt to Miami’s momentum and kept FSU’s deficit to a manageable 10 points in the third quarter.
Safe to say that if the Seminoles needed a few reasons to feel good about themselves, they found them against Miami.
“They’re binding together,” Fisher said. “They’re feeling the pride, the competition level.
“It goes back to what we built the program on: toughness, effort, discipline and pride. … When you do the intangibles, the scoreboard takes care of itself.”
It did on Saturday. And Walker believes that if they can string together a few efforts like the one they had against Miami, the Seminoles can write their own page in the history books.
“We just trusted one another out there today. We went out and played great football,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of football to play ahead of us.”