CLEMSON, S.C. – For everything that worked against Florida State on Saturday afternoon at Clemson, the Seminoles had something of a best-case scenario midway through the fourth quarter:
A three-point deficit, a quiet crowd and the ball at the Tigers’ 40-yard line following a fumble recovery by Brian Burns.
For a moment, it looked like all the miscues that put the Seminoles into an early three-score deficit would wash away, and that FSU might move ahead for a win that could redefine what has been a difficult season.
Then, in a moment, it was gone, lost in an off-target throw that Clemson intercepted and returned into FSU territory. A few moments later, the No. 4 Tigers were in the end zone and well on their way to a 31-14 win over the Seminoles here at Memorial Stadium.
“We were right there to have a chance and let it slip away from us,” FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said. “Whether it’s offense, defense, special teams, we just can’t seem to make that play when we need to make it – whether it’s pick up a fumble, drop a post, overthrow a couple balls. We’ve got to relax and make those plays.”
The Seminoles (3-6, 3-5 ACC) entered the game believing that last week’s win over Syracuse could be a turning point in its season, and that, if they played to their potential, they could upset the No. 4 Tigers (9-1, 7-1) here at Memorial Stadium.
And while the fourth-quarter turnover was the most obvious – and most painful – example of a missed opportunity, it was far from the only one.
The Seminoles twice missed big passing plays by fingertips, with deep balls to Auden Tate and Nyqwan Murray just inches out of reach.
FSU fell victim to missed blocking assignments, one of which allowed a Clemson defender to level and force a fumble from FSU quarterback James Blackman.
And in the second quarter, FSU defensive end Brian Burns forced a fumble that linebacker Matthew Thomas misjudged on the bounce. Had Thomas recovered, he had a clear path to the end zone. Instead, Clemson’s Kelly Bryant corralled the ball and the Tigers salvaged a field goal that made it 17-0 at halftime.
“I took my eyes off the ball,” Thomas said. “As soon as I saw the ball I tried to pick it up and I just ran…I was going to take that ball and run it back to Tallahassee.”
“It may have been a 90-yard touchdown,” Fisher said. “I don’t know.”
FSU, however, pushed back in the second half thanks to an inspired effort from its defense and some opportunistic plays from its offense.
Quarterback James Blackman, under siege all day from a talented Clemson defensive line, stunned the Tigers midway through the third quarter with a 39-yard completion to Murray that gave the Seminoles the ball at Clemson’s 3-yard line.
A play later, Jacques Patrick, making his return from knee surgery, plunged in from three yards out to make it 17-7.
The Seminoles then cut their deficit to 17-14 with a creative trick play – an end-around flea-flicker to Murray – that ended in a 60-yard touchdown pass from Blackman to tight end Ryan Izzo.
“They bit hard on the run to the boundary,” Izzo said. “Jimbo drew up a great play, we repped it all week and we were successful with it.”
Izzo’s touchdown set the stage for a dramatic finish.
It started with a mistake from Clemson’s Etienne, the returner who mishandled Logan Tyler’s kickoff and was brought down at his own 10-yard line.
And it continued a few moments later when FSU’s Ro’Derrick Hoskins stripped the ball from Clemson’s Bryant at the Tigers’ 40. Burns recovered and, for the first time all afternoon, the crowd of 81,436 fell silent.
“We were in good position,” said Burns, who had his best outing of the season with two sacks, 4.5 tackles for loss and two forced fumbles.
“I felt like the offense would get it in. I had extreme confidence. It just didn’t work out.”
Fisher said after the game that Blackman’s next throw, a deep pass down that middle that Clemson’s Van Smith intercepted, was “just a mistake.”
He thought that the Seminoles might have had Tate one-on-one with a defender down the sideline, but, given the circumstances – a true freshman, playing in a tight affair in one of college football’s most difficult environments – it was hard to fault Blackman too much.
Otherwise Fisher praised Blackman’s resolve and toughness, especially after he was sacked five times and hit several more.
“I’ve got to get him to play better in those situations,” Fisher said. “He did a great job tonight … There’s nobody that’s more hurt about it than he is, there’s no doubt about that – and me for him.”
Given a chance to finally pull away, the Tigers wasted little time. Clemson went 44 yards in six plays to make it 24-14, then added another score after the Seminoles failed to convert a fourth down on their ensuing drive.
All four of Clemson’s touchdown drives started in FSU territory – three as the result of turnovers, and the other after a long punt return. The Tigers finished with 378 total yards, well below their season average of 443.
“They (didn’t) have to drive down the field on us,” Thomas said. “When you get a short field, it’s easy.”
It made for a loss that was hard to accept. The Seminoles were of course disappointed following another close defeat, but this time, they said they were angry, too.
Angry because, for much of the afternoon, they traded punches with the No. 4 team in the country before coming up short. And especially angry because they felt like they didn’t give themselves their best possible chance to win.
“I was mad,” Thomas said. “Everybody is mad. Because we know we could have beaten them. We just didn’t take advantage of opportunities we had. That’s part of football.”
So, too, Fisher said, is fighting through tough times. Despite everything they’ve been through this season, the Seminoles still have real goals on the table: They can still win six games and earn bowl eligibility, and, if they do that, they can still finish with a winning season for the 41st consecutive year.
FSU will take the next step toward those goals at home next week against Delaware State.
“One day,” Fisher said, “it will click. And you’ll look around and say, ‘What the heck was so hard?’ But you’ve got to fight through this time right now, and (fight through) the adversity that they’re going through.”