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FSU defense leads the way in flawed but decisive win over NC State

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It’s a winning streak!

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 21 Louisville at Florida State Photo by Logan Stanford/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

In a game marred by way too much questionable officiating, the ending to this one was never really up for debate, as the Seminole defense helped Florida State pull away from NC State, 31-13.

With all eyes on FSU’s quarterback situation, head coach Willie Taggart employed some pregame misdirection, as James Blackman warmed up with the first unit and was announced to the crowd as the starter before kickoff. And then Alex Hornibrook took the opening snap— and every one after that.

But if Florida State fans were concerned about the Seminoles blowing another big first-quarter lead, that wouldn’t be an issue— because there wasn’t one. The Wolfpack packed the box to take away Cam Akers, who managed just 22 yards on 9 carries in the first half. They also came hard off the edge at Hornibrook, who was sacked four times prior to intermission.

Although he hit on 7-8 attempts to start the game and helped the ’Noles to a 3-0 lead, Hornibrook has to get better with protecting the ball. He really could have had three first-half turnovers, fumbling once when he didn’t secure the rock (it was recovered by FSU) and tossing two late, pressured ducks over the middle late that he was fortunate not to have picked.

Speaking of backup QBs (it was revealed later that Blackman tweaked his knee again this week), former ’Nole Bailey Hockman quickly took over for Matthew McKay, but he didn’t fare much better against a Florida State defense that allowed just a pair of field goals before half-time. Those six points were good enough for a 6-3 second-quarter lead, but FSU then adjusted, going to some cut-blocking and using NCSU’s aggressiveness against it some to score the half’s final 14 points. The first came when Hornibrook found Tamorrion Terry on a crossing pattern for a 43-yard touchdown, and the next was on a double-move 40-yarder to Ontaria Wilson. That was a great ball by Hornibrook.

At the half, the Seminoles led 17-6, on the strength of a defense allowing just 4.6 yards per play. But the offensively limited ’Noles only managed 5 YPP before the break.

They had a great chance to break things open some to start the second half when Keyshawn Helton returned its opening kick to the NC State 40. But the drive went backward. On the next drive, Florida State again had nice field position, and drove to within scoring position. But Ricky Aguayo missed his fourth field goal attempt in the last two games, and the lead remained 17-6.

FSU drove to within range of another missed-Aguayo FG on its next possession, but Hornibrook took two consecutive sacks to move the offense back into punting territory. On the night, he was sacked eight times— and several of those were his own fault.

The offense may have left some possible points out there early in the second half, but it came through late in the third quarter, when Hornibrook found Terry on a nine-yard lob to extend the FSU lead to 24-6— Ricky Aguayo appeared to have been benched, as Parker Grothaus (successfully) converted the remaining extra points.

And the defense continued to show out, forcing three-and outs on NCSU’s first three possessions after the half. But then came the fourth quarter. And you know what that has meant for FSU this year: drama.

An NC State drive was helped by roughing-the-passer calls on Brandan Gant and Cory Durden, and then came a targeting ejection to Janarius Robinson that will also see him miss the first half against Clemson. The Wolfpack found the end zone for the first time with 13:04 remaining to pull within 24-13. And you got really nervous.

But then Akers decided to take over. Bettering his entire total to the game at that point, Akers amassed 64 yards on the next drive, including a 41-yard TD scamper on fourth-and-short to make it 31-13. And that wound up the final, as much of the second half consisted of the refs finding different flags to throw on FSU, which wound up with 13 penalties compared to eight on NC State— and those don’t include the ones that offset.

Some of the judgement calls were, at best, arguable, but the Florida State offense was still flagged five times for not being lined up correctly. And that’s just sloppy. Hornibrook’s final line looks better than he played: 29-40 for threes scores, no INTs, and 316 yards.

There’s plenty to like about what went down on Saturday night, mostly from the defense, which finished allowing just 4.6 YPP— a model of consistency, as that number remained the same through each half. Amari Gainer got the start for the injured Jaiden Lars-Woodbey, and he was exceptional, registering nine tackles, 2.5 for loss, and a pair of sacks, along with a forced fumble that stole what was headed for a late NC State TD. The defense also did well on third downs, holding the Wolfpack to 4-16 conversions.

Was this game a thing of beauty? No. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a hard-fought, well-earned victory, when the Seminoles were only favored by a touchdown. But we have to be careful about just looking at the final score to evaluate play, too. This team has definite shortcomings— but it’s playing better, even if its level of competition has dropped off since facing Boise State and Virginia. We’ll see how FSU looks in its next two games following a bye week, when the Seminoles will travel to face two undefeated squads in Clemson and Wake Forest.