RALEIGH, N.C. — Florida State quarterback Christian Ponder just might be getting the hang of late-game heroics.
For the second game in a row, he showed polish and poise, leading his team to a fourth-quarter touchdown that erased a four-point deficit as the Seminoles pulled out a 26-17 conference victory against North Carolina State on Thursday night at Carter-Finley Stadium.
"I can't remember when we won a game like that," FSU coach Bobby Bowden said. "The last few years, we always lost these kind of ball games. … Maybe we're beginning to grow up a little bit."
Beginning with the offense.
The Seminoles (5-1, 2-1 ACC) fell behind 10-0, then rallied to take a lead only to see the Wolfpack's improving redshirt freshman quarterback Russell Wilson hit receiver Owen Spencer for a 67-yard touchdown to open the fourth quarter.
Suddenly, the N.C. State fans in the crowd of 56,643 were sensing an upset. Again. The Wolfpack (2-5, 0-3) won four of the previous seven meetings against FSU, including two of three here.
"Before, I think guys let the pressure affect them," Ponder said. "I saw guys who were calm and collected and were hungry."
"That was gut-check time," echoed senior tailback Antone Smith, whose 27-yard touchdown in the third quarter gave the Seminoles their first lead, 13-10. "We can't give up."
That was a replay of the game Oct. 4 at Miami when the Hurricanes rallied and FSU drove 81 yards for a clinching TD.
"I thought, it's Miami all over again," Ponder said.
This time, the redshirt sophomore hit 6 of 8 passes for 71 yards, including a 23-yard strike to redshirt freshman receiver Taiwan Easterling on third and 17 and culminating with a 17-yard touchdown to redshirt freshman receiver Bert Reed.
"When I made a second cutback, I saw the end zone," said Reed, who picked up critical blocks from fellow receivers Preston Parker and Corey Surrency, "and my eyes lit up."
Ponder followed with another solid drive that led to a 44-yard field goal by Graham Gano. After FSU's big fourth-down stop when cornerback Rod Roberts, a former Hernando High standout, broke up a pass, Gano added a game-sealing 53-yarder.
Ponder connected with eight different targets and finished 23-of-35 or 254 yards, one touchdown and, most important, no interceptions. He had been picked off at least once in each of the three previous games. He also rushed for 29 yards, a modest total compared to the 144 he had at Miami, but then he was sacked three times.
"He's got a great knack," offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher said of Ponder's big drives. "He's making great decisions when the game's on the line … and our players believe in him."
Bowden said he hasn't had such an inexperienced quarterback grow up so quickly since Chris Weinke, who in 1988 rebounded from a six-interception performance in this stadium to help FSU reach the inaugural Bowl Championship Series finale. Of course, Weinke was in his mid 20s and had been a pro baseball player.
"Maybe this is a turnaround," Bowden said of the offense responding in back-to-back games. "You did it against N.C. State. At N.C. State. … They had momentum. They had good momentum going. That's why I said, lately, we haven't won these kind of games."
Brian Landman can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3347.