TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – In the week leading up to Saturday’s homecoming game, Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher shared a lesson in economics with his defense, which has repeatedly started slow and finished strong throughout the season.
“It was just coach Jimbo stressing to us that we’ve got to start fast; that we’re not a second half team,” FSU junior defensive end Mario Edwards said. “He compared it to living check-to-check. We’re living check-to-check instead of putting money in the bank. He just told us we needed to start fast.”
Heeding Fisher’s sound advice, the Seminoles started fast, forcing three first-half turnovers, which the offense converted into 21 points on the way to a 34-20 victory.
Capitalizing on Virginia’s inability to hang on to the football in the first half, the Seminoles didn’t waste much time making the Cavaliers pay dearly for their miscues. FSU scored 21 points on 59 seconds of elapsed possession time, converting two fumbles and an interception into a 28-13 lead at intermission.
Edwards, enjoying perhaps the most productive game of his career, was in the middle of the mayhem-making. His play to separate tailback Kevin Parks from the ball three yards behind the line of scrimmage on the Cavaliers’ first offensive play of the game – with defensive tackle Derrick Mitchell covering the loose ball – set up the Seminoles at the Virginia 23.
It took the Noles all of 48 seconds to turn Parks’ first fumble in 299 carries into a score. Quarterback Jameis Winston’s 20-yard scramble set up the first of two Karlos Williams touchdown runs, this one from 2 yards out for a 7-0 lead.
“All I remember was him [Parks] going to the ground,” said Edwards, who led the defense with nine tackles, including a sack among his four for negative yardage. “I looked down and he was looking for the ball.”
The contributions on defense were much appreciated as the Cavaliers returned the favor, converting a pair of Winston interceptions into touchdowns on the ensuing two possessions, resulting in a 13-7 deficit with 24 seconds remaining in the first quarter. A three-and-out defensive stand by the Cavaliers on FSU’s next possession offered the appearance of a clear momentum shift, at which point junior punter Cason Beatty stepped to the fore.
Responding with a career-long 67-yard punt, Beatty pinned the Cavaliers back at their own 7. It took the Noles one play to regain momentum.
With Virginia quarterback Greyson Lambert staring down his target in the flat, linebacker Terrance Smith stepped in front of his throw for an interception and stepped out of bounds at the 3. Williams punched it in for his second score and Roberto Aguayo’s point-after gave the Noles a 14-13 lead they would not relinquish.
“It felt great just being there for the team and stepping up in that role,” said Beatty, who averaged a season-high 48.5 yards on four punts. “I’m not a specialty position. I’m a punter and they needed the punter to come up in that position so our defense could get them back. The seven-yard line is very difficult to work out of. Our defense puts pressure on them, makes the play and Jameis comes back on and we get a score.”
Lambert’s next pass attempt – or more accurately, a lateral after a replay review – ended up in the hands of defensive tackle Eddie Goldman, who rumbled into the end zone for an apparent 22-yard defensive score. Ultimately, the Seminoles were awarded the ball at the UVA 22 and Winston promptly found Rashad Greene all alone on the next snap for a touchdown and a 21-13 cushion.
“It was a shame the one of Eddie’s didn’t count,” Fisher said.
“He [Goldman] was kind of hurt and I was kind of hurt for him,” Edwards said. “I was like, ‘Oh man, they took your touchdown away.’ At the end of the day it helped us.”
No one was more encouraged and relieved by the big-play defense than Winston.
“The good thing is our defense is playing lights out,” Winston said. “They continue to play better and better, but my job as the leader of the team and as the quarterback of this team, I have to put both sides of the ball in good position to win the game.”
Yet on this night, when the offense mustered just a pair of second half field goals and turned the ball over three times (which the Cavaliers turned into 21 points of their own) the defense was up to the task.
Beyond the points off turnovers, the Seminoles limited the Cavaliers to 257 total yards on 67 plays and just 37 on the ground. They also came up with a fourth-down stop in the red zone on Virginia’s final drive of the night, allowing the offense to run out the clock.
“It’s definitely gives the team a momentum swing,” Edwards said of the scoring contributions by the defense. “You’re able to turn the ball over and put it back in the offenses hands, so the offense can score. We come into the game every week wanting to get three turnovers and we were able to achieve that tonight.”