- David M. Hale, College football
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RALEIGH, N.C. -- Twenty minutes after No. 3 Florida State's 17-16 loss Saturday was over, as NC State fans still whooped and cheered in the parking lots surrounding Carter-Finley Stadium, Jimbo Fisher took to the podium and awaited the firing squad.
It was Fisher, as much as anyone, who had stoked the fires of immense expectations this season. He knew the horror stories of years past, faced the same stinging questions in 2011. But this year was different. There was reason to believe, he'd promised.
When the questions ended, Fisher stood at the podium a bit longer, as if the barrage hadn't offered an opportunity for the requisite amount of self-flagellation. After a moment, he hung his head and walked to the door, muttering simply, "We didn't get it done."
EJ Manuel was more muted in his remorse.
Dressed in a neatly pressed black suit, Manuel looked every bit the image of the cool customer he's been during his five years in Tallahassee. He offered little insight into the machinations of his offense's struggles, instead turning the focus to what lies ahead. He shouldered blame for failed execution but offered only a desire to turn the page.
"I've been through this before," Manuel said. "I understand that it happens."
Of course, this is the problem. Manuel has been here before, Florida State has been here before, a wounded and jaded fanbase has been here before.
Expectation is nothing new, nor is the disappointment. This is the fourth time Florida State has opened a season with five straight wins since its national-championship campaign in 1999, and it is the fourth time they have lost Game 6.
That it feels so familiar now is perhaps the most damning indictment of what transpired Saturday night.
"We were 5-0 before the game," senior Everett Dawkins said. "We've never been this great of a team. It was hard. I think it might've been the hardest of them all."
Even as the walls began to close in on them, as the images of a dominant first half gave way to NC State's torturous marches down the field, as the lead shrank and the possibilities of another collapse came into focus, the Seminoles appeared unfazed.
If there was a defining moment in the loss, it was the quiet, the calm, the lack of response.
The running game had been dominant in the first half, building a 16-0 lead on the shoulders of running back Chris Thompson, but he found little room to run in the second half.
And yet, even as it became clear the running game had lost its edge, Fisher asked for more. Eight of Florida State's final 11 plays before surrendering its lead were runs, including all three on a potentially game-ending drive that began with 2:47 remaining and mustered just one yard.
In hindsight, Fisher said, he would've been more aggressive.
Fisher lamented the lack of a running game in the second half, saying he'd hoped to wear down the NC State defense, hoped to power through to a first down on that late fourth-quarter drive to wind down the clock. And yet he never turned to his bruising 6-foot-2 tailback James Wilder Jr. He ran the diminutive Thompson again and again, and that, too, Fisher said, looks foolish in retrospect.
A week earlier, NC State's secondary was torched for an ACC-record 566 passing yards by Miami's Stephen Morris. It was so bad that the Wolfpack held a players-only meeting to regroup this week.
They rebounded with ease, and Manuel mustered just 218 yards and one touchdown. He took four sacks and struggled to complete any big plays downfield. But afterward, Manuel couldn't find anything NC State had done differently.
"I can't say what was different," Manuel said. "They played a good game and they came out on top."
There is ample blame to go around, but the aftermath wasn't filled with fury and finger-pointing. It was somber and filled with regret.
"We let one slip away from us," Fisher said, before shuffling through no fewer than a dozen mistakes.
For the second straight week, the offense failed to cash in on good field position, ending each of their first six drives at midfield or in NC State territory but coming away with just one touchdown.
There was the interception, the missed throws to open receivers, the 15-yard sack Manuel took on a third-down play in the fourth quarter that pushed Florida State out of field-goal range. There was the pass to Kelvin Benjamin that the 6-foot-6 receiver thought he caught along the sideline, only to have it ruled incomplete after the ball bounded away as he hit the ground. Fisher burned his last timeout to challenge the ruling, and Florida State was still pounding its fists that the catch was good after the game.
But this isn't just a game that slipped away. For Manuel, it was a final opportunity. For Fisher, it might have been his best.
For Florida State, it was simply another opportunity, like so many of them that had ended with this same somber regret before.
"We had a lot of chances to play," Fisher said. "In a game like that, there are always the shoulda, coulda, wouldas. There are inches, and you have to execute. We didn't do that."
There was an air of familiarity to No. 3 Florida State's shocking 17-16 loss to NC State on Saturday, and that might be the most disappointing part of the defeat.