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FSU opens with wild rally, victory over Ole Miss

Florida State Seminoles defensive tackle Derrick Nnadi (91) celebrates after recovering a fumble during the Camping World Kickoff against the Mississippi Rebels on Monday September 5, 2016 at Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Florida.
Published Sep. 6, 2016

ORLANDO — After spending every second of fall camp surrounded by a TV crew for Showtime's season-long documentary, No. 4 Florida State looked clueless when the cameras came on for real Monday night.

Until the Seminoles pulled out an unforgettable second act and the largest comeback win in program history.

FSU rattled off 33 consecutive points to overcome a 22-point deficit and show its national championship potential with a show-stopping 45-34 victory over No. 11 Ole Miss.

"We know we got a bunch of competitors and fighters," coach Jimbo Fisher said in an onfield interview. "We got a lot of stuff to clean up. We were far from perfect."

They definitely were not early, in front of a sold-out, FSU-heavy crowd of 63,042 at Camping World Stadium. The 'Noles (1-0) didn't even resemble an ACC contender, let alone a favorite to come 87 miles west to Raymond James Stadium for the Jan. 9 national title game.

A veteran team that returned 17 starters committed 11 penalties in the first half. An offensive line that was supposed to rebound from 2015 was overpowered by an SEC defense.

Rebels quarterback Chad Kelly picked apart a defense that was expected to be one of the best in the country with three touchdown passes and 215 yards in the first two quarters. A pass rush led by an All-America candidate (DeMarcus Walker) and a five-star talent (Josh Sweat) allowed Kelly to complete 14 of his first 22 passes and rush for 52 first-half yards.

Even Heisman Trophy hopeful Dalvin Cook looked shaky; he had only 31 rushing yards in the first half and, untouched on a wide-open path to the end zone, watched the ball slip out of his hands and out of bounds.

"That never happened to me before in my life …" said Cook, who quietly finished with 192 yards of offense. "I don't know how it happened."

Instead of Cook's first touchdown of the year, FSU settled for a field goal and faced a 28-6 deficit with 3:04 left in the half.

"Everything that could go wrong was going wrong," quarterback Deondre Francois said.

And then the second-act heroics started.

In his first career start, Francois led FSU on a nine-play, 75-yard drive. The redshirt freshman made up for his team's two previous red-zone failures when he hit Travis Rudolph for a 16-yard score on third down to trim the halftime deficit to a manageable 15 points.

"The drive at the end of the first half was critical," Fisher said. "It got us back to a two-score game."

After Fisher delivered an expletive-laced locker-room speech that might make Showtime viewers cringe, the 'Noles kept charging, beginning with one of true freshman Ricky Aguayo's school-record six field goals and continuing behind a defense that resurrected itself in the second half.

Sophomore Marcus Lewis intercepted Kelly on the Rebels' first drive of the third quarter, setting up Freddie Stevenson's 1-yard touchdown run. On the next possession, Walker stripped the ball from Kelly for Derrick Nnadi to corral. Ole Miss' third turnover set up LeVonte Whitfield's 3-yard touchdown run to give FSU its first lead — and cap the team's biggest comeback since they tied Florida with a 28-point rally 22 years ago in the Choke at Doak.

"It was a nightmarish second half," Rebels coach Hugh Freeze said.

And it kept rolling on; FSU scored on nine consecutive possessions.

Francois hit tight end Ryan Izzo for a 2-yard score on the next drive to extend the lead to 36-28. Two more Aguayo field goals offset Kelly's fourth touchdown pass of the night, and Tarvarus McFadden had a late interception to help FSU remain undefeated in its 11 trips to Orlando.

It's hard to overstate FSU's turnaround, led by Francois' 33-of-52, 419-yard debut. Through 28 minutes, the 'Noles had 157 yards; they racked up 423 the rest of the way. After FSU failed to record a sack in the first half, Walker alone had 4½ in the final two quarters. The Rebels had 312 yards in the first half but only 68 over the final 30 minutes.

And if FSU's season lives up to expectations, it's hard to overstate the comeback's significance.

A loss wouldn't have dashed the 'Noles' title hopes, but it would have seriously dented them. Instead, FSU refused to become the third top-five team to lose on opening weekend and came away with a comeback for the ages.

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