By Tim Linafelt, Seminoles.com Senior Writer
ORLANDO, Fla. – In a little more than 30 minutes of game time, Florida State found its quarterback, its defense, and its kicker. The Seminoles might have found the resolve needed to make a run to the College Football Playoff, too. Because after a first half in which everything went wrong, FSU bounced back with one of the most impressive second halves of the Jimbo Fisher era and beyond. And, as a result, they earned the largest comeback victory in school history.
Deondre Francois threw for 419 yards and two touchdowns, Ricky Aguayo set a school record with six field goals and DeMarcus Walker racked up 4 ½ sacks as the No. 4 Seminoles rallied from a 22-point deficit and escaped Orlando with a 45-34 win over No. 11 Mississippi at Camping World Stadium.
The Seminoles outscored the Rebels 39-6 over the final 30:28 to reach 1-0 for the seventh consecutive season. They’ll return home to face Charleston Southern on Saturday at 12:30 p.m.
“When you’re in a heavyweight fight, you’re going to take shots,” FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said. “People are going to hit you, you know that. You’ve just got to have the willingness to come back.”
As the game approached halftime, the Seminoles appeared to be headed toward the wrong end of a rout. FSU looked out of sorts for much of the first two quarters, and Ole Miss quarterback Chad Kelly took advantage with three first-half touchdown passes on the way to a 28-6 lead.
The night, however, would eventually belong to Francois, the redshirt freshman quarterback making his first collegiate appearance in his hometown.
After a month of comparisons to former Seminole Jameis Winston, who, by the way, watched Monday’s game from the FSU sidelines, Francois delivered a debut arguably as memorable as Winston’s.
Although he didn’t have as high of a completion percentage or as many touchdowns as Winston did at Pittsburgh in 2013 (incidentally, also on Labor Day), Francois deftly guided the Seminoles on nine straight scoring drives to end the game.
He completed 33 of his 52 passing attempts and also gave the Rebels fits with his legs, adding another 59 yards on the ground.
It was good enough to render star running back Dalvin Cook with what was likely the quietest 192-yard night (91 rushing, 101 receiving) he’ll ever have.
“He had 200 yards of offense, and we just feel like he wasn’t there,” Fisher said with a smile. ” I mean, think about how good is that?”
“I just had a lot of first-time jitters, but once I got settled in, got banged up a few times, I felt better,” Francois said. “…I just felt too blessed to lose the game.”
Francois showed a veteran’s poise in the pocket, most notably on a 16-yard touchdown strike to Travis Rudolph at the end of the first half.
With the Ole Miss defense closing in, Francois held his positioning, delivered a perfect throw and then absorbed a crushing blow from a Rebels defender.
Francois stayed down for a few extra moments but made his way to the sideline and was ready to go for the second half. That touchdown, meanwhile, proved the turning point in the game: It cut FSU’s deficit to 28-13 at halftime and was the first of 33 straight points that swung the game in the Seminoles’ favor.
“I’m going to tell you now,” Fisher said, “when you stand there and deliver one of them (throws) you realize this is college football. And your teammates, that’s when your teammates respect you, when they see you standing there and taking those shots, and you don’t duck and wench away.
“I thought it was tremendous and I thought it was a drive of the game that gave us a chance to come back in the game.”
Francois will grab most of the headlines, but he will, however, have to share some of the spotlight with FSU’s new kicker.
A true freshman also carrying the weight of heavy expectations – his older brother, Roberto, was an All-American at FSU for three years – Ricky Aguayo needed just one game to place his name atop the Florida State record books.
“I just reminded him every play, Create your own legacy. … I’m behind you, I’m in your corner,’” sophomore safety Derwin James said. “And he came through for us every time, and that’s big. That really helped us.”
A native of nearby Mascotte, Fla., Aguayo was a perfect 6 for 6 on field goal attempts Monday night, with makes of 21, 25, 30, 40 (twice), and 44 yards.
His last field goal, from 30 yards, provided the final margin, as well as some welcome breathing room with 4:53 to go.
Fisher had praise for both Aguayo and fellow freshman Logan Tyler, who averaged 44 yards on three punts and also was effective in handling kickoff duties.
“Those guys they had a big night,” Fisher said.
After an uneven first half, FSU’s defense answered the bell in the second, limiting the Rebels to just one scoring drive amidst the Seminoles’ offensive onslaught. Ole Miss went into halftime with 312 yards of total offense. The Rebels finished the game with 380.
That’s thanks to a mammoth second-half effort from Walker, who finished just half a sack away from tying FSU’s single-game record and also forced a strip-sack of Kelly that led to the Seminoles’ first lead of the game.
Sophomore defensive backs James, Tarvarus McFadden and Marcus Lewis each grabbed the first interceptions of their careers.
“Our defense was outstanding the second half,” Fisher said. “I mean, the first half, (Ole Miss) had their thing, but that defense, after they felt us getting a surge on offense, I mean they swarmed now. I mean, they created turnovers. They created sacks. They created havoc.”
Game ball: Deondre Francois, DeMarcus Walker and Ricky Aguayo all made excellent cases in Florida State’s 45-34 win over Ole Miss, but it has to be Francois, who passed for an astounding 419 yards and two touchdowns in his collegiate debut. It was startling to see coach Jimbo Fisher trust Francois to make so many difficult throws throughout a game that wasn’t decided until late, but, on virtually every occasion, Francois rewarded Fisher’s trust.
His touchdown pass to Travis Rudolph at the end of the second quarter will be on all the highlight shows, but his 27-yard completion to Rudolph – deep and over the middle – on third-and-15 late in the fourth quarter may have been just as impressive. That play led to a 40-yard field goal by Aguayo that stretched FSU’s lead back to eight points just a few moments after the Rebels threatened with a quick touchdown.
Play of the game: Francois will likely remember his second-quarter TD pass to Rudolph (referenced above) for a few reasons: One, it was the first touchdown pass of his career, and it cut FSU’s deficit to 28-13 at halftime. And two, after standing in the pocket and absorbing a heavy hit from a Rebels defender while making the throw, he’ll probably feel the aftereffects when he wakes up Tuesday morning. Fisher called the play “critical” for FSU’s comeback bid and noted that there’s no better way for a young quarterback to earn the respect of his teammates than by standing tall and delivering a pass while knowing he’s going to take a big hit.
Turning point: Even after the Seminoles scored a quick 10 points to start the third quarter, they still trailed 28-23 and had yet to consistently stifle the Rebels’ offense. But the momentum changed for good on Ole Miss’ second drive of the third quarter, when FSU senior DeMarcus Walker barreled through the Rebels’ line, locked up quarterback Chad Kelly and knocked the ball loose. Derrick Nnadi recovered at the Rebels’ 11-yard line and, three plays later, Kermit Whitfield was in the end zone for FSU’s first lead of the game. The Seminoles never trailed again. It was the first of 4 ½ sacks for Walker and one of four turnovers FSU forced from Kelly.
It was over when: Aguayo hit the last of his school-record six field goals, this one from 30 yards out, to make it 45-34. As much as FSU dominated in the second half, the Rebels still trailed by just one possession midway through the fourth quarter. Aguayo’s kick – which came with plenty of pressure, given the circumstances – gave the Seminoles some breathing room and put the Rebels into desperation mode. Kelly then threw his third interception on the ensuing possession and the Seminoles were able to run out the clock.