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FSU football survives in ACC championship. Is the playoff next?

The Seminoles beat Louisville with a dominant defense and a big play from Pinellas’ Lawrance Toafili.
 
Florida State running back Lawrance Toafili (9) celebrates after a third-quarter touchdown against Louisville in the ACC Championship on Saturday night.
Florida State running back Lawrance Toafili (9) celebrates after a third-quarter touchdown against Louisville in the ACC Championship on Saturday night. [ SCOTT KINSER | AP ]
Published Dec. 3, 2023|Updated Dec. 3, 2023

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — As Florida State celebrated Saturday night’s 16-6 triumph over Louisville in the ACC championship, a fitting song blasted at Bank of America Stadium.

“All I do is win.”

That is all the No. 4 Seminoles do. They win with game-breaking rushes and jump-ball passes. They win with diving interceptions and bone-rattling hits. They win in blowouts and comebacks, with transfers and homegrown talent, at home, at hostile road environments and, twice now, on a neutral field. Thirteen games. Thirteen wins, one after another — good, bad and (on Saturday) ugly.

We won’t know until shortly after noon Sunday whether it’s enough to send FSU to its first College Football Playoff appearance since 2014. No. 7 Texas and No. 8 Alabama will be in the conversation, too.

Those debates can wait. Saturday night was about FSU winning its 16th ACC championship — and, by far, its unlikeliest.

“We made the plays necessary,” coach Mike Norvell said. “That’s what this team is all about.”

Florida State coach Mike Norvell lifts the trophy after the team stays unbeaten with a conference title.
Florida State coach Mike Norvell lifts the trophy after the team stays unbeaten with a conference title. [ ERIK VERDUZCO | AP ]

A month ago, this team was all about star quarterback Jordan Travis, who was on the sideline in crutches as he recovers from the devastating leg injury he suffered against North Alabama. Travis’ backup, Tate Rodemaker, went through warmups but was ultimately ruled out because of lingering effects from a hit to the head he took in last week’s win at Florida.

That meant the start went to Rodemaker’s backup, Brock Glenn — a true freshman who was inexperienced even by those standards (he missed a month with a hand injury this fall and entered Saturday with four career passes).

Glenn looked the part of a raw rookie. He was nearly sacked on his first snap and brought down on his second and fifth drop-backs. His offense sputtered, opening with four consecutive three-and-outs.

Glenn missed on six of his 12 first-half passes and took a disastrous sack at the end of the second quarter. A shanked punt gave the Seminoles the ball at the Louisville 38. A pair of big plays by Trey Benson moved FSU into the red zone. Then Glenn couldn’t avoid a pass rush and was sacked. The 9-yard loss pushed a field goal attempt back to 45 yards. It missed wide left, leading to the lowest scoring first half (3-0, FSU) in ACC championship game history.

Florida State quarterback Brock Glenn runs the ball during the first half.
Florida State quarterback Brock Glenn runs the ball during the first half. [ ERIK VERDUZCO | AP ]

Fortunately for FSU, the Seminoles had another quarterback: running back Lawrance Toafili.

Facing a stingy Louisville run defense, FSU added more wildcat quarterback plays into the plan to try to find an edge. One of those options was Toafili, the Pinellas Park High alumnus.

“I was just trying to be ready for my moment,” Toafili said.

That moment came in the third quarter after Louisville (10-3) tied the score at 3. Toafili took a direct snap on the first play of the ensuing drive and found a hole to the right. He hit it and sped 73 yards down the sideline, then pounded in for a 2-yard touchdown on the next snap.

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“It was a spark we needed,” Norvell said.

It was a spark that helped Toafili rush for 118 yards — his first 100-yard game of the season and third of his career — and earned him MVP honors. It was also enough to secure FSU’s first conference title since 2014. That’s because, though FSU’s offense did not look playoff-worthy, its defense played at a championship level.

The Seminoles held one of the nation’s top 30 offenses to 188 total yards — less than half the Cardinals’ season average (438.6). Veteran quarterback Jack Plummer missed on eight consecutive throws in the first half. Louisville went three-and-out five times and four-and-out three more. FSU finished with seven sacks, 14 tackles for a loss and a season-high 10 pass breakups.

Florida State defensive lineman Braden Fiske (55) sacks Louisville quarterback Jack Plummer (13) during the second half.
Florida State defensive lineman Braden Fiske (55) sacks Louisville quarterback Jack Plummer (13) during the second half. [ ERIK VERDUZCO | AP ]

A special-teams breakdown led Alex Mastromanno to get tackled at the FSU 12 in the fourth quarter. Tatum Bethune shrugged it off by intercepting a pass in the end zone to end the threat.

For the second consecutive game, the Seminoles held their opponent to negative yardage in the fourth quarter; the Gators lost 15 last week, and Louisville lost 23 Saturday.

The Cardinals’ final eight plays: one completion, one stuffed run, three broken up passes and three sacks. The last one was by Braden Fiske, who dominated with three sacks, four and a half tackles for a loss and two other hurries).

“They just rise up,” Norvell said.

As they did, the entire team rose with them, completing the climb Norvell started four years ago. The once-proud program he inherited was a mess on and off the field. Its NCAA-record bowl streak was over. A team that was once the hallmark of stability was on its third coach in four seasons. A team that once had 14 consecutive top-five seasons had back-to-back losing campaigns — with more on the way.

Bit by bit, player by player, win by win, FSU climbed out of it and back to national relevance. That’s why Saturday was worth celebrating.

“These guys are champions,” Norvell said.

We’ll find out soon whether that’s enough to earn a trip to the playoff or be relegated to the Orange Bowl. Norvell’s ’Noles made their case for four quarters Saturday the same way they have a dozen other times this season, no matter the injury or adversity, matchup or moment.

“We win,” Norvell said. “We win.”

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