For enough of Saturday night, Florida State looked like Florida State again.
That’s the easiest way to explain the inexplicable — the Seminoles' 31-28 upset of No. 5 North Carolina. A team that struggled at home two weeks ago against Division I-AA Jacksonville State exploded for 31 first-half points without its top receiver (Tamorrion Terry) against a dark-horse College Football Playoff contender.
A team that dropped its last six games against top-five opponents by an average of 27 points each dominated this one for a half and held on for the team’s first top-five win since a 31-27 triumph over Notre Dame six years ago today.
These 'Noles (2-3, 1-3 ACC) will not and should not be mistaken for those 2014 'Noles. The near-historic collapse in the final 20 minutes made that clear. They have a long way to go to get back to sustained relevance.
But they’re closer now. Given a chance to fold, like they have too many times since the end of the Jimbo Fisher era, they didn’t. Instead of finding a way to lose, they found a way to win. If nothing else, they at least looked like a team that was worthy of wearing the garnet and gold — something FSU fans haven’t been able to say for most of the past three-plus years.
“We found a way to be one play better,” first-year coach Mike Norvell said after one of the biggest wins of his life.
For the first two quarters, it looked as if FSU was a lot more than one play better. The Seminoles blocked a punt on the opening drive, then had Jordan Travis rush 23 yards for a touchdown on the next play.
A defense that went two consecutive Division I-A games without a sack had three through three quarters. Defensive end Joshua Kaindoh returned an interception for a score to open up a 24-0 lead.
It was the kind of start FSU might have had in its glory days. But the real progress Norvell has made in his tumultuous 10-month tenure showed up afterward, starting when Javonte Williams rushed for an easy score to trim FSU’s lead to 24-7 with a minute left in the half.
The Seminoles of the past three years would have started withering from the adversity, allowing a rough possession to snowball into a lost game. Maybe they even started to do so by committing three personal fouls in a five-play sequence.
But this FSU team didn’t cave. Travis drove the 'Noles 75 yards in five plays on the ensuing possession, then hit Cam McDonald for a 12-yard touchdown to take a 31-7 lead into halftime.
“They answered the call,” Norvell said. “You look at that last two-minute drive, that’s one that I’ll remember for a long time.”
It ended up being crucial, considering how FSU cratered in the final 20 minutes.
Sam Howell — a longtime FSU commit who spurned the Seminoles for his home-state Tar Heels (3-1, 3-1) in December 2018 — threw a pair of touchdowns in a span of 4:06 to cut the deficit to 10.
It was set up to be another FSU collapse, like the opener against Georgia Tech, when the 'Noles squandered an early 10-0 lead. Or last year’s loss to Boise State, when they blew a pair of 18-point advantages. Or the three-score rally they allowed at Miami in 2018.
Except this time, it didn’t happen.
A hobbled Travis scrambled for a pair of third-down conversions to help drain the clock. And after giving up one more Howell touchdown pass with 4:58 left, the defense finally held on.
A stuffed run. Three incomplete passes. A program-changing win. A Powerade bath for Norvell.
And, finally, four triumphant words from Norvell that haven’t resonated in Tallahassee in years but sound like something from the Seminoles of old.
“They finished the job.”
• The commitment to special teams Mike Norvell has stressed since his first day on the job is paying off. FSU blocked two of North Carolina’s first three punts, giving them five blocked kicks/punts already. The Seminoles had only seven total in the last three years.
• If you want to nitpick, the Seminoles' discipline remains lacking. In a span of five snaps late in the first half, FSU was flagged for targeting, roughing the passer and roughing the kicker.
• Because of injuries, defensive end Joshua Kaindoh has never quite lived up to his five-star billing. He did Saturday night with a pivotal pick-six in the first half and a crucial pass deflection on a two-point conversion in the second.