TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – This time, Florida State stared down its fourth-quarter ghosts and chased them away.
Or, to borrow from FSU safety Cyrus Fagan, the Seminoles threw those ghosts out the window.
Faced with another potential late flameout – a three-point deficit after leading by as many as 21 – Florida State rallied for a go-ahead touchdown, and even better, held firm on defense for a 35-24 victory over the Louisville Cardinals on Saturday afternoon at Doak Campbell Stadium.
Fagan turned the tide with an interception deep in FSU territory, and the Seminoles took the lead with a 60-yard touchdown pass from Alex Hornibrook to Tamorrion Terry. A little while later, the last of Cam Akers’ career-high three rushing touchdown added an exclamation point.
After a loss to Boise State (in which FSU led 21-6) in the opener, and then a closer-than-it-should-have-been win over ULM (in which FSU led 21-0), yeah, this one had the home locker room smiling again.
“We had that, ‘Oh here it is again (feeling),’” Fagan said of FSU’s trials in the fourth quarter. “We had to throw that out the window.
“Now we know we can do it. We know what we can do in the fourth quarter when our backs are against the wall.”
Indeed, after Fagan’s interception – which prevented a likely Louisville field goal attempt that could have extended FSU’s deficit to six – the Seminoles (2-2, 1-1 ACC) scored two touchdowns, notched two of their six total sacks and otherwise made sure that there would be no late heartache this time around.
It was the first time this season that FSU scored more than its opponent during the fourth quarter. The Seminoles had been outscored 48-21 in the final period during their previous three games.
“For our guys to come here and play the way they did and play the fourth quarter and find a way to win the ball game was big for our football team,” Taggart said. “A much-needed win for our football team.”
And, maybe, some much-needed confidence as the Seminoles move into the heart of their ACC schedule. They’ll host North Carolina State next week (7:30 p.m., ACC Network) and then visit No. 1 Clemson on Oct. 12.
“Guys are showing they’re improving,” Taggart said. “Each week they’re improving. Hasn’t been as fast as we would like, but for them to go out and put a complete game together was big for our team and big for our confidence moving forward.
“We’ve got to build off it now.”
Hornibrook, a graduate transfer from Wisconsin, received his first snaps as a Seminole in the first quarter as part of a planned rotation with usual starter James Blackman.
Hornibrook took over for good early in the second half, when Blackman left with an apparent knee injury. Taggart said Blackman will have an MRI on Sunday to determine the severity of the injury but did note that seeing Blackman walking on the sidelines was a good sign.
Hornibrook, though, gave reason to believe that the Seminoles’ offense will be in good hands either way. The fifth-year senior completed 15-of-20 passes for 255 yards and two touchdowns, including a 44-yard score to Keyshawn Helton on his first pass in an FSU uniform.
Blackman had thrown for 127 yards on 11-of-14 passing when he left the game.
“For (Hornibrook) to come in and lead our team was big for us,” Taggart said. “I think it showed his experience and how mature he is. The game wasn’t too big for him. The moment wasn’t too big for him. He was ready for it.”
As was the case in each of FSU’s first two games, the Seminoles looked ready to cruise in the early goings.
And just like in those first two games, things had tightened up considerably by the fourth quarter.
Behind two of Akers’ touchdowns and Hornibrook’s scoring strike to Helton, the Seminoles led 21-0 after the first quarter.
But, aided by three missed FSU field goals, Louisville answered back with an offensive surge of its own: 24 consecutive points that culminated with a 74-yard touchdown pass that gave the Cardinals their first lead of the game early in the fourth quarter.
At that point, it would have been hard to blame the Seminoles – or their fans – for fearing the worst.
After all, FSU had held and surrendered fourth-quarter leads in every game this season and yet entered Saturday’s contest with a 1-2 record.
But the Seminoles were having none of it.
“Respond. That was the number one word going around the sideline,” said running back Cam Akers, who ran for 112 yards on 29 carries to reach the 100-yard mark for the third time this season. “Just stay in our cocoon and keep doing what we have been practicing. We have practiced for adverse situations like that and have played in adverse situations this year. The vibe was just to respond.”
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“I told (teammates) that we are going to trust what we have learned,” defensive tackle Marvin Wilson added. “That we are going to trust each other, and that we are going to trust our coaches, that we are going to win this football game.
“That is exactly what we did.”
That turnaround started with Fagan’s interception, the first of his career and maybe the first time this season that the Seminoles’ defense made a stop when it absolutely needed it.
And it continued when Hornibrook found D.J. Matthews over the middle of the field for a 24-yard gain on second-and-20, just moments after a broken play and a pre-snap penalty put the Seminoles’ behind the chains.
Had Matthews not come down with the ball – and it took a big effort for the 5-10 receiver to go up and get it – the Seminoles might not have been in position for what happened two plays later.
That’s when Hornibrook saw Terry sprinting down the right sideline without a single defender anywhere near him – a play later described by Louisville coach Scott Satterfield as a botched blitz.
“It’s just a major bust,” he said. “You are not even making them work for it. You are giving them an easy touchdown. That’s unacceptable.”
Hornibrook, no surprise, had a different perspective on it.
“I think, before I threw it, everyone saw it in the stands, too,” he said with a smile. “They just didn’t have another (defender) for him and Terry did the rest. That was a gift.”
It might have been a footnote had the Seminoles’ defense not done its part on the ensuing drive.
But it did, first by bringing down quarterback Malik Cunningham for a loss of five on first down, and then by holding its nerve on second and third.
The drive finished as the last of seven three-and-outs forced by coordinator Harlon Barnett’s group, and that was enough to throw those late-game ghosts out the window.
For good measure, the Seminoles slammed that window shut when Akers punched in the last of his touchdowns to provide the final margin.
“We have been staying cool, staying together, and just building on the losses we’ve had,” Akers said. “Today, that started to show. We showed a lot of grit and heart as a team as we came out with a victory.”
FSU finished with its most total yardage (522), its lowest penalty yardage (36 on five infractions), and its highest time of possession (26:18) of the season. The Seminoles also didn’t turn the ball over while forcing two takeaways of their own.
And, led by a career night from defensive tackle Marvin Wilson (10 tackles 3.5 for loss, two sacks), Florida State’s defense bottled up the Cardinals’ vaunted rushing attack to the tune of 124 yards on 47 attempts. That’s a paltry 2.6 yards per carry and nearly 140 yards beneath Louisville’s season average.
“Our guys corrected some mistakes that caused us not to win those games early in the year,” Taggart said. “We played smart today and found a way to make some winning plays when we needed to (have) them.
“That’s how you win ball games.”