MIAMI — For Florida State quarterback Christian Ponder, it was a play that showed how far he had come and what that might mean for the rest of the season.
Clinging to a two-point lead and facing third and 11 against an increasingly confident Miami defense in the waning minutes, he didn't seem unnerved by earlier mistakes or the situation.
Instead, the redshirt sophomore didn't force a throw but took off and dived for a first down that led to a clinching touchdown in FSU's wild 41-39 win on a rainy Saturday before an announced crowd of 65,786 at Dolphin Stadium.
"When you play the University of Miami or you play the University of Florida at their place, you don't get in a much tighter situation," FSU coach Bobby Bowden said. "It's a good time for a quarterback to panic. I never saw him panic. He just did a good job."
Ponder, tailback Antone Smith and all the Seminoles (4-1, 1-1), who had to win to stay alive in the race for the ACC's Atlantic Division title and a shot at coming to Tampa Bay for the Dec. 6 league championship game, dominated the Hurricanes early.
FSU stunned the 'Canes (2-3, 0-2) by taking a 24-0 lead late in the opening half. The 'Canes, led by former Plant High star quarterback Robert Marve, hit a field goal on the final play of the half then scored quickly to start the second before Smith scored the third of his four touchdowns for a 31-10 lead.
But UM, itself trying to regain its place in the ACC as well as among the national elite, rallied behind freshman receiver/kick returner Travis Benjamin (185 yards on returns, 71 yards on three catches and a touchdown and one rush for 18 yards and a touchdown).
And one big Ponder turnover. Defensive back Bruce Johnson blindsided him on a throw from the end zone on second and 9. Linebacker Sean Spence intercepted the pass and returned it 7 yards for a touchdown to bring UM within 34-29 with 11:23 left.
Unable to move the ball, the Seminoles had to punt and committed the umpteenth special teams gaffe. The snap bounced off one of the upmen and UM started at the FSU 4. FSU held and forced a field goal, but the 'Canes had all the momentum.
As he paced the sideline, Bowden flashed back to his first year as coach at West Virginia and the 1970 game against archrival Pittsburgh; his team led 35-8 halftime and lost, 36-35.
"Oh Lord, here we go again," he said. "That was one of the worst defeats I've ever had in my life. (If we lost this one) it definitely would have been the worst while in Tallahassee."
But on the ensuing series, Ponder and the offense matured.
Especially on that critical third down from the FSU 49.
"It was a pass play but I saw nothing open and I felt I had a lot of room to run and I took off," said Ponder, who had 144 yards rushing, the second most by a FSU quarterback (Ken MacLean had 146 against Cumberland in 1948) to go with 159 yards passing.
Spence tripped him, but Ponder kept his balance long enough, then hurled his body beyond the first-down marker. It was the kind of play he didn't make Sept. 20 in a 12-3 loss to Wake Forest.
"He's a competitor. He's a winner and he's learning and growing," FSU offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher said. "He's making mistakes here and there, but he's growing and learning to put them behind him and the guy can make plays, he understands how to lead and he understands how to compete and win."
Smith eventually capped the nine-play, 81-yard drive with a 20-yard burst up the middle on a third-and-goal call that FSU coaches figured would lead to a field goal.
"That whole drive was huge," Ponder said. "That play kept it going, but Antone being able to score was huge; that put the game away. I don't think we would have won it if he didn't score there."
Brian Landman can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3347.