CLEMSON, S.C. — The Florida State Seminoles were looking to make a postseason statement on Saturday night against Clemson.
And they might have.
Just not the one they wanted.
The Seminoles couldn't contain senior running back C.J. Spiller or overcome a career-high four Christian Ponder interceptions — the last one ended with him separating his shoulder — as Clemson scored 19 unanswered points in the fourth quarter for a 40-24 win before an announced crowd of 77,000 at Memorial Stadium.
"That game would be pretty easy to summarize," FSU coach Bobby Bowden said. "I thought Spiller was the difference in the ball game … and then our problems with turnovers."
The Seminoles (4-5, 2-4 ACC) must win two of their last three regular-season games (at Wake Forest, Maryland and at No. 1 Florida) to reach the minimum number of wins for bowl eligibility.
FSU has played in a bowl 27 straight seasons and failing to extend that streak, coupled with sagging home attendance, might make it difficult for the embattled Bowden to justify receiving a new one-year contract. That would pave the way for anointed heir Jimbo Fisher to take over a year before his contract demands.
"We just can't lay down," senior linebacker Dekoda Watson said. "We may have lost our chance for the ACC, but at the same time, we have to step up and make sure that we play to the best of our ability. We still have a chance for a bowl game. It's not going to be a big bowl game, but at the same time, we don't want to have a losing season. That's something that Florida State hasn't had in a long time."
The Tigers (6-3, 4-2) have won four straight to take control of their destiny in the Atlantic Division. If they tie Boston College (6-3, 3-2), they own the head-to-head tiebreaker.
If the Tigers get to the league finale for the first time at Raymond James Stadium on Dec. 5, it would give them a shot at their first ACC title since 1991. And Spiller is a big reason.
Against a defense that had struggled to stop anyone, let alone a Heisman Trophy candidate, Spiller had a career-high 165 yards rushing, including the clinching 5-yard touchdown, and a Clemson-record 312 all-purpose yards. That included a 58-yard reception for a touchdown.
That performance offset the Tigers' kicking woes — missing two short field goals and three extra points — and two turnovers.
"I doubt if anybody is playing better than him in the country," Bowden said.
"We finally figured out a way to stop him — we're going to graduate him," deadpanned defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews.
Down 21-17 in the second half, Ponder engineered one of his most impressive drives of the season, taking the Seminoles 73 yards on 16 plays in 6:19. He converted four third-down plays and FSU needed at least 8 yards on three of them. Sophomore tailback Jermaine Thomas, who had 119 yards, capped the drive with a 1-yard touchdown to give the Seminoles the lead.
But then FSU's turnovers turned the game.
Redshirt freshman safety Rashard Hall intercepted a long pass down the left sideline for freshman receiver Rodney Smith, returned it 11 yards and then, seemingly tried to lateral it but misfired. Senior linebacker Kavell Conner scooped it up and returned it 29 yards.
"I'm definitely disappointed," Ponder said in a statement. "A lot of it fell on me. We had a chance to win the game and I didn't come through."
The Tigers then cashed in on freshman tailback Andre Ellington's 9-yard touchdown run for a 27-24 lead with 9:37 left. Clemson forced a punt and the Tigers added another touchdown for a 33-24 lead. A few minutes later, Tallahassee native DeAndre McDaniel came down with his eighth interception of the season that he returned 27 downs before Ponder knocked him out of bounds, apparently injuring his right (throwing) shoulder.
"We'll have to evaluate and see what happens," offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher said. "He's got bruised ribs (from last week) and a separated shoulder. … If you're a competitor, if you're a football player, if you're going to walk out there and they're going to keep score and people are going to watch, if that doesn't motivate you to win then you're in the wrong business. … We have to make some adjustments."