TALLAHASSEE — Florida State sophomore kicker Dustin Hopkins had been imagining, longing for even, the chance at a field goal to win a game in the waning moments and succeed where so many of his predecessors had famously failed.
He had his shot Saturday, a 40-yarder, with the Seminoles trailing North Carolina by two and seven seconds left.
"I was really thankful for the opportunity God put on my plate," he said.
But Hopkins, who missed a 42-yarder wide right earlier in the fourth quarter, pushed this attempt in the same direction, sealing the Tar Heels' dramatic 37-35 win at Doak Campbell Stadium and giving the Seminoles their second straight last-minute loss.
"I hate it for him, I hate it for us, but that's ball," FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said.
"He missed it."
The No. 24-ranked Seminoles (6-3, 4-2) entered needing help in the ACC's Atlantic Division after a 28-24 loss Oct. 28 at North Carolina State, in which quarterback Christian Ponder lost a fumble on a second-and-goal play from the 4. They got it, too, as Clemson upset N.C. State and Miami beat Maryland before FSU's game began.
Not that the Seminoles took advantage.
Credit the resilient Tar Heels (6-3, 3-2), who have overcome the impact of an agent scandal and an ongoing investigation into possible academic misconduct that has resulted in 13 scholarship players missing at least one game.
Credit senior quarterback T.J. Yates, too. He threw for three touchdowns and a school-record 439 yards — the most against FSU since Florida's Danny Wuerffel put up 443 yards in a win in 1995. And after a botched punt that led to an FSU touchdown, Yates led his team 72 yards in 12 plays, setting up a go-ahead 22-yard field goal by Casey Barth, whose brother Connor kicks for the Tampa Bay Bucs, with 55 seconds to go.
"We created a lot of drama there at the end," UNC coach Butch Davis said, referring to senior Mark House snapping a ball over the head of redshirt freshman punter C.J. Feagles, the son of former longtime NFL punter Jeff, who was penalized for trying to kick the ball backward and out of the end zone while it was in the field a play.
That gave FSU the ball at the 1, a gift to be sure, and fullback Lonnie Pryor scored his second touchdown of the game on the next play to regain the lead for his team, 35-34, with 5:49 left.
"Mark's done a phenomenal job for his entire career," Davis said. "I know he felt bad. I know C.J. felt bad. But the single best drive our team has had in my four years here as a head coach was the answering drive."
But the Seminoles looked like they would answer that.
Sophomore Greg Reid returned the ensuing kick 50 yards to the UNC 45. Ponder, who threw for a season-high 264 yards and three touchdowns without committing a turnover (he had six in the previous two games), hit junior receiver Taiwan Easterling for 3 yards, then sophomore receiver Willie Haulstead for 9 and 13 to reach the 20. He then took a 2-yard loss to center the ball between the hash marks and set the stage for Hopkins.
As Hopkins did on his first try of the day (and early in his freshman year) he left his hips open, which meant his right leg didn't swing through the ball. And, as a golfer will tell you, that will lead to a slice, one that silenced the FSU fans who had seen such a result far too many times.
"We know if Dustin kicks that 100 more times, he's going to make all of them," Ponder said. "I told him we know what kind of player he is, and he's got to forget about it."
Hopkins, who calmly answered questions afterward, even paraphrased Scriptures (Psalms 34:18) about how "The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit."
Hopkins had hit at least one field goal in 10 straight games, the second-longest active streak in the nation.
"Of course, it's so disappointing," he said. "I've got to bounce back. We've all got to bounce back from the loss and come back next week and beat a really good Clemson team. … It was an awesome opportunity, and I still feel the same way. I hope it comes up again. I hope it comes up three more times."