TAMPA, Fla. -- It turned out to be the game's defining moment, but the truth is, Cornellius "Tank" Carradine had no idea what happened.
He saw a blocker go down, and he saw a clear path to the quarterback. After that, it's a blur. He didn't notice that USF had its backup quarterback in, and he didn't notice that Matt Floyd fumbled away the football at the moment Carradine made contact. And it was only after Carradine had taken a moment to gather his thoughts that he noticed his teammate, Christian Jones, celebrating in the end zone.
"I saw the quarterback wide open," Carradine said, "and I just hit him hard."
It was beautiful in its simplicity.
Carradine's crushing hit on Floyd caused a fumble that Jones scooped up and delivered to the end zone, providing Florida State with a much-needed cushion in a 30-17 win over USF.
The sack was a perfect crescendo for a defense that, just two weeks ago, was hailed as one of the nation's best but by the end of the first quarter Saturday was struggling to find its footing.
Carradine was the centerpiece of both the early struggles and the late heroics. The first four plays of the game were all runs directed at the senior defensive end, who took over the starting job when Brandon Jenkins was lost for the season.
"I guess they picked me out to be the weakest link," Carradine said.
USF's plan seemed to be working. The Bulls marched 62 yards on 10 plays on their opening drive, which ended in a field goal. They finished the first quarter having dominated the time of possession, racking up 144 yards in the process. Just a week after FSU's vaunted defense allowed 426 yards and 37 points to Clemson, concern was beginning to grow.
"We just had to calm down," safety Lamarcus Joyner said. "First game away, that's pretty tough. It's tough to go in someone else's home because they're going to fight and scratch and claw, and we just had to get our minds right."
The adjustments started at the line of scrimmage.
USF quarterback B.J. Daniels was killing Florida State with dink-and-dunk passes over the middle and runs to the perimeter. Carradine and the defensive line finally caught on.
By the time the second quarter began, USF's running game slowed and the pass rush finally began disrupting Daniels in the backfield.
"The defense came out and really started dominating the line of scrimmage," FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said. "We played too loose in the beginning, too much man, and so we threw in some zone coverage and they settled down and got their feet on the ground and started playing much better."
The third quarter concluded with the big hit on Floyd, Jones' fumble recovery and the end-zone celebration that caught Carradine completely by surprise.
"I was about to run outside but Tank got there first," Jones said. "Tank's a beast."
Timmy Jernigan was flagged for a personal foul following the play and USF took advantage, scoring on the ensuing drive to keep the game close. But the USF offense fizzled late and Daniels' final pass sailed out of bounds on fourth down.
It was hardly the emphatic statement FSU's defense had hoped for, and the performance probably didn't erase any lingering memories of the unit's struggles against Clemson.
But for the second straight week, the Seminoles' defense finished far better than it started. And when the game was on the line, Florida State came up with the defining play.
"You take a look at the scoreboard, and you're like, 'Wow, I'm glad the defense made that play,' " Joyner said. "That's the kind of plays you need to win on the road."