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Strong finish from Florida State aided by defense’s resolve

The Seminoles’ defense made major strides down the stretch to close strong and earn an Orange Bowl bid in a season that once seemed lost.

NCAA Football: Florida State at Miami Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

For Florida State, the Orange Bowl serves as a fitting finale to a unique season.

The Seminoles’ Orange Bowl bid is the program’s fifth straight appearance in a BCS/New Year’s Six bowl, the second-longest active streak in the country behind only Alabama.

That being said, it does little to tell the story of this Florida State season.

Five weeks into the season, FSU, the fourth-ranked team in both the AP and USA Today Coaches Preseason Polls, had just fallen to 3-2 after a heartbreaking home loss to North Carolina on a last-second field goal. The loss marked the end of a 3+ year unbeaten streak at home and gave the Seminoles its second loss of the season on October 1st, the earliest occasion for loss #2 since 2011, Jimbo Fisher’s second year. It also put an end to Florida State’s pursuit of a second College Football Playoff appearance in three years.

“It was a wake-up call,” FSU defensive tackle Derrick Nnadi said. “It really showed how much we needed to work on.”

“We had to look in the mirror. Everybody had to start doing their jobs,” cornerback Tarvarus McFadden added.

With the playoff out of the picture and the season on the ropes, it became gut-check time for the Seminoles. Would they make the most of its season or would they crumble further with the cards stacked against them?

FSU defensive coordinator Charles Kelly weighed in on the team’s mindset at that point, saying, “You’ve got a decision. You can come to work and get better or you’re going to get worse. You’re not going to stay the same. I think our staff, our players, everybody involved said we’re going to develop, we’re going to get better.”

This held true as Florida State answered the call, winning six of its final seven games and taking Clemson to the wire in the sole loss over that stretch. One player who led the resurgence, at least on the defensive side of the ball, was senior cornerback Marquez White.

“I know the way I approached it after that North Carolina game. I took it personal, came to work every day,” White said. “The young guys really look up to me so that made them come to work each day harder, harder, harder, getting better. I feel like that kind of spread over the defense, spread over the whole team.”

The results on the field backed up the message being said off the field. The same FSU defense that allowed 6.98 yards per play over the first five weeks, worst among all Power Five teams, have lowered that mark all the way down to 5.45 ypp, now inside the Top 50 among FBS teams.

Now, it’s worth noting that there could be a correlation between improved defensive play and the diminished talent level of offenses FSU played down the stretch. However, the same secondary that was allowing receivers to run wide-open downfield against FCS opponent Charleston Southern in week two rallied together down the stretch while also dealing with a multitude of injuries to the starters. Now, Florida State players feel they have earned their spot in another NY6 bowl.

“We got better throughout the season,” DeMarcus Walker said. “We deserve it.”

“To be in the Orange Bowl playing Michigan, that’s just an account of the heart and soul of this defense, of this team. The fight of this team,” White added.

It may be difficult to label this season a success after all the preseason hype surrounding this Florida State team. However, sitting at 3-2 after the loss to North Carolina, an Orange Bowl berth seemed like a pipe dream. Somehow, the Seminoles made it a reality and that is a credit to its hard work, determination, and the major strides the team made down the stretch of the season to salvage what once seemed like a lost season.