TALLAHASSEE — Florida State quarterback Christian Ponder's keeper late in the opening quarter against North Carolina State will show up in the statistics as a modest gainer.
But his 3-yard run might be remembered as the biggest play as the Seminoles pulled out a 45-42 shootout win Saturday to move a step closer to bowl eligibility and stay alive in the ACC Atlantic Division race.
Not for what it did, but what it didn't do.
Ponder took a helmet to the back and bruised his ribs as he converted the third down and, though noticeably hampered, continued to shine, inspiring his teammates to show a similar toughness when they needed it.
"What a warrior," defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews said. "You'd don't want anybody to get hurt, but you'd like sometimes for each one of those guys to experience that kind of pain and have enough fortitude, want-to and desire to see it through. … If we can get everybody playing with that kind of determination, we might be a pretty good team before it's over."
Andrews briefly interrupted his postgame interview to walk over to Ponder and ever-so-gently hug him and tell him how much he appreciated his effort and performance.
"He is a leader, he is tough and they're learning to take his personality and fight and claw and scratch," echoed offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher. "I don't have enough words for him. I really don't. I don't have the words to describe the kid. I'm blessed to be able to coach him."
The Seminoles (4-4, 2-3 ACC) also feel lucky to have him around.
They rode his passing and poise, sophomore tailback Jermaine Thomas' powerful running (a career-high 186 yards and two touchdowns) and solid offensive line play to take a 10-point lead early in the fourth quarter of the wild, back-and-forth slugfest.
But sophomore quarterback Russell Wilson threw his career-high fifth touchdown, a 5-yarder to junior receiver Jarvis Williams with 3:50 left, to give the Wolfpack its first lead, 42-38.
Ponder, who received ice treatments throughout halftime (Fisher had redshirt freshman EJ Manuel warming up just in case), refused to acknowledge the discomfort or dwell on it, even if it did cause him to sail some passes and perhaps contributed to two interceptions, his first since the opener against Miami.
"Football's a contact sport and of course you're going to get hit, and you're going to get banged up," said Ponder, who threw for 277 yards and a touchdown and had 29 yards on four rushes. "You can't make plays if you start thinking about that stuff. You just can't worry about it. … I'm here to win. I'm here to do whatever it takes."
All Ponder did was hit three straight passes to move the Seminoles 46 yards.
After two runs set up third and goal at the 3, sophomore receiver Bert Reed took an end-around and, instead of trying to outrun the Wolfpack defense, cut inside and plowed his way into the end zone.
"Ponder's not a yelling guy, and he's not going to tell you that he's hurt, but you could see it in his eyes when he was throwing the ball, and that just makes you want to play so much harder for him," said Reed, who had 66 yards receiving and 44 rushing. "He carried us tonight, even hurt. He thanked us, but I thanked him, just for doing it for us, sticking in there and putting it all out on the line."
FSU's beleaguered defense, which allowed a season-high 538 yards, then responded with some toughness of its own to stop the Wolfpack (3-5, 0-4), which has lost four straight since beating Pitt.
Junior linebacker Mister Alexander sacked Wilson with 10 seconds left, then senior cornerback Patrick Robinson deflected Wilson's desperation heave that senior safety Jamie Robinson intercepted in the end zone.
"I'm proud of ol' Ponder because he took a couple shots there early in the game that would have put a normal guy out," said coach Bobby Bowden, who has won two straight after a three-game losing streak gave FSU its worst start to a season since 1976, his first year as coach. "But he stayed in there with it."
"When you're a great player, you impact other guys," added Fisher. "You make them want to be better players because of the way you play and practice … and that's what's happening."
And for the Seminoles, that is big.
Brian Landman can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3347.