TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- With just a few seconds left in the third quarter, Jameis Winston emerged from the scrum huddled around Florida State’s bench, popped on his helmet and started tossing a football back and forth to get his arm loose.
Winston played just five snaps in the second half, but as Florida State watched NC State slowly chip away at a likely insurmountable lead, he wanted desperately to deliver a final blow.
“It was going to be like a new game for me,” said Winston, who finished with 292 yards passing and threw three TDs in the 49-17 Florida State win. “We expected to put them in submission and they didn’t give up. I really wanted to go back out there.”
For Florida State, Saturday’s game was personal. It was billed as a classic trap game, sandwiched between an emotional victory over Clemson and next week’s top-10 showdown against rival Miami, but the players didn’t see it that way.
A year ago, it was NC State that provided the painful asterisk to FSU’s ACC championship season. A 16-0 halftime lead disappeared, a second-half swoon enveloped the Seminoles, and NC State celebrated a 17-16 win. The lingering memories fueled a week of practice this time around, and Florida State’s players weren’t thrilled to watch another slow, second-half regression, regardless of the numbers on the scoreboard.
“On the sideline, you’d see some people like, ‘Why did they put [the backups] in so early?’” tackle Cameron Erving said.
The obvious answer was the score. Florida State matched a school record with 35 first-quarter points, utterly overwhelming the Wolfpack from the start. For the second straight game, the Seminoles forced an early turnover to set up a touchdown and never looked back. When the opening quarter ended, FSU had three more points than NC State had yards.
By halftime, Jimbo Fisher had seen enough of his starters. The offense played one series in the third quarter, which ended with an interception. The defense didn’t play at all after the break.
NC State didn’t follow suit.
The Wolfpack left their starters on the field, chipped away with 10 points in the third quarter, and Fisher got nervous. He told Winston to warm up, instructed his defense to get loose.
“You never know what’s going to happen,” Fisher said. “I wasn’t going to be that guy on SportsCenter.”
The starters never took the field again, but NC State's second-half success soured the celebration a bit.
It was an odd dynamic after the game. Fisher split time praising the hot start and critiquing the slow finish. Winston summed up his performance as “OK” but said he allowed the early success to sway his focus. The starting defense didn’t allow a point, and yet they weren’t satisfied.
“We hated seeing them run the ball,” safety Terrence Brooks said. “It was definitely personal.”
It was also potentially significant for Florida State’s national championship hopes. With a handful of undefeated teams jockeying for position in the BCS standings, style points loom large. In the initial BCS rankings, Florida State held a minuscule .0028-point lead over Oregon for the No. 2 spot.
That’s something Fisher said he considered, but it’s also a game he doesn’t want to play.
“I’m not going to go out there and embarrass this game and the integrity of how you’ve got to play,” Fisher said. “If that’s the way they’re going to do it, they need to re-evaluate. If they can’t tell we dominated that game early and put it away -- I just think that’s bad for college football, in my opinion.”
Fisher’s decision may work out for the best.
It was the somber second half in last year’s loss that drove Florida State this year, but just 13 minutes into this year’s game, it was clear vengeance had been delivered. And then Florida State took its foot off the gas, slinked into the half and emerged from the locker room with the reserves leading the charge. All that emotion had disappeared.
How the NC State game ended, Winston said, is worth remembering again this year.
“We started so fast and were doing so well, and we’ve got to finish that, keep pouring it on,” Winston said. “We got took out early in the third quarter, and we left with that taste in our mouth. We’re going to have a rough [week of] practice.”