CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Florida State coach Bobby Bowden had been trying for some time to remind frustrated fans that it was far too early to give up; half the season remained, daggumit.
That wasn't going over so well.
Maybe it will now.
Down by 18 points early in the second half against one of the nation's stingiest defenses, the Seminoles rallied behind another stellar game from quarterback Christian Ponder to pull out a 30-27 win against North Carolina on Thursday night.
The Seminoles (3-4, 1-3 ACC) snapped a three-game losing streak and should, for now, temper some of the fans' disenchantment with a season they thought was spiraling toward the first losing one since Bowden's debut in 1976.
"We needed it. We need the one next week, and we need the one after that one, too," Bowden said. "All the talk we've had down there (in Tallahassee), there ain't but one thing that solves it: winning. All you've got to do is win. That's all people understand. Play close and fight your guts out, who cares? You've got to win."
His players did all that on this night.
"We had an opportunity to give up, and we didn't; that's just the character of the guys on this team," said Ponder, who set the tone by relaxing and picking apart the Tar Heels (4-3, 0-3), who entered the game allowing an average of 125.17 passing yards, first nationally.
He hit 33 of 40 passes for a career-high 395 yards — his third straight game setting a personal benchmark — and three second-half touchdowns, including what proved to be the winner, to tight end Beau Reliford, an 18-yarder with 6:20 left.
"This offense has the capability to do a lot of things, especially passing the ball," he said. "Moving the ball like that proves how good we can be."
"He's probably the most underrated (quarterbacks) in the country," Bowden said. "They talk about the Super Three up there (Florida's Tim Tebow, Texas' Colt McCoy and Oklahoma's Sam Bradford), which they are, but this kid might ought to be sitting with them."
Ponder completed his last 16 passes for 236 yards.
With FSU trailing 24-13 during the third quarter, senior safety Jamie Robinson came up with his first interception of the season to stop a UNC drive at FSU's 3-yard line that led to a FSU play out of yesteryear.
After a delay moved the ball to the 2, receiver Rod Owens got by cornerback Charles Brown and pulled in a pass from Ponder down the right sideline. Brown caught him and tried to trip him up near midfield, but Owens kept his balance and raced the rest of the way for a 98-yard touchdown. It was FSU's longest pass play since Chris Weinke hit Marvin Minnis for 98 yards in a win against Clemson in 2000 and was the longest in Kenan Stadium history.
The Tar Heels opened the game going 80 yards on 10 plays, which included a nifty pass from fullback Bobby Rome to receiver Greg Little for 31 yards and set up Little's 5-yard touchdown run.
The Seminoles cut the deficit to 7-3 on freshman Dustin Hopkins' 48-yard field goal. But on their next possession, Ponder was hit and lost a fumble at his 15 that defensive tackle Marvin Austin (a player FSU had coveted coming out of high school) recovered. Two plays later, quarterback T.J. Yates hit tight end Ed Barham for a 13-yard touchdown, Yates' first scoring pass in three games.
Later, on fourth and 3 from the FSU 27, Yates walked toward the bench feigning confusion as the direct snap went to tailback Shaun Draughn. He went 5 yards for the first down, and the Heels ended up with a 34-yard field goal and a 17-3 lead.
Ponder hit four straight passes to move the ball 41 yards to the 3 in the waning seconds of the half. But then the Carolina defense looked like the league's stingiest. Linebacker Bruce Carter tackled a running Ponder for a 6-yard loss. Hopkins closed the half with a 26-yard field goal to narrow the deficit to 17-6.