Florida State Beats Maryland and Now Has to Root Hard for Maryland
COLLEGE PARK, Md. --- Christian Ponder was pleased as time expired at Byrd Stadium on Saturday night. The Florida State quarterback had returned from injury and helped the Seminoles secure a 30-16 victory in his final regular-season conference game.
Still, as he approached some Terrapins during postgame handshakes, he couldn't help but want a little more.
"I told all those Maryland guys that we'd appreciate it if they'd beat up on N.C. State next week," Ponder said with a smile.
While the Seminoles (8-3, 6-2 ACC) head home for their annual game against Florida -- a once-fierce rivalry turned one-sided since Urban Meyer appeared on the Sunshine State scene five years ago --- their dreams of an Atlantic Division title remain rooted on the same field where they beat Maryland (7-4, 4-3).
If the Terps knock off N.C. State (8-3, 5-2) on Saturday, Florida State collects its first division title since 2005. N.C. State clinches the division if it wins the finale.
And so the Seminoles will have two games of interest next week: theirs and the one played concurrently in College Park.
"We've won six (conference) games and done all we can do," Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said. "You wish you had it in your control, but that was an option we could have taken care of a couple weeks ago and we didn't do that. It was great. We won six games, more than we've done here in a while."
That sums up the state of the Seminoles, as does the classic we-can-only-worry-about-ourselves philosophy Fisher preached after wrapping up league play. And basically, it makes sense for him to think in such a manner as his first season nears its conclusion.
Fisher inherited a program not so much in decline as stagnation. A team that lost 19 games over 14 seasons between 1987 and 2000 settled into mediocrity in the final days of Bobby Bowden, managing a 30-22 record (16-16 in the ACC) over the final four years of the Aughts.
The Florida State of old is hardly back, and in today's college football it may never be. But signs of growth remain meaningful for the Seminoles, who followed up back-to-back conference losses with consecutive victories locked up in the final minute.
Once the behemoth in a conference derisively dubbed "Florida State and the Eight Dwarfs," the Seminoles' return to contention carries considerable value -- enough that a little scoreboard watching next week is tolerable.
"Honestly, it is pretty tough because we had those last three games that all came down to the wire," tailback Chris Thompson said. "It's pretty tough to know that we're in this position, but it's also a good feeling, too, because we know we've been putting in real good work just to be in this position. We're hoping it all works out in our favor."
No matter how a game outside Florida State's control unfolds, Fisher can see an upshot in Saturday's victory. As he sets about the Seminoles' revival, it helps to have something measurable to sell. Florida State might not make it to the Dec. 4 conference title game against Virginia Tech, but it at least has a share of the Atlantic to its name.
The Seminoles snagged six conference games for the first time since 2004. Their first 10-win season since '03 is more than plausible. Bit by bit, the restoration is underway.
"Six wins is where we're wanting to go," Fisher said. "It's a step in the right direction. I'm very proud of these guys, and those seniors can at least say they're champions of this division no matter what."
With a little help from Maryland next week, absolutely no one will argue with him.
Five Undeniable, Certifiable, Quantifiable Cosmic Truths
1. Ponder escaped without further injury.
The Florida State quarterback was solid if not particularly spectacular -- 16-for-26, 170 yards, a touchdown and an interception -- a week after sitting out against Clemson. His lone touchdown pass, a 44-yard strike to Bert Reed, was more a function of Reed making Maryland defensive backs miss.
But the upshot for Ponder was he returned to Tallahassee unscathed with two or three games left in his career.
"The elbow feels good," Ponder said. "It didn't really bother me. The only time it bothered me was that late hit out of bounds when I landed on it. But we looked at it after the game and the swelling's not too bad."
2. Fisher could have done without the final touchdown.
The 30-16 margin didn't reflect how the game unfolded. Nick Moody's 96-yard interception return for a touchdown in the final minute provided the Seminoles their first two-possession lead of the evening.
While Fisher appreciated the game-clinching pick, he actually would have preferred not to see the school's longest interception return since Deion Sanders had one for 100 yards against Tulsa in 1985.
"Two-score game and they get the ball back and that's a chance they can run it back (or) throw a Hail Mary, get an onside and score," Fisher said. "Better off taking a knee."
3. Outside of two plays, Maryland's defense was superb.
The Terrapins allowed Florida State 354 yards in 57 plays, a scenario they likely would have complained about if offered before the game.
Yet Thompson's 70-yard touchdown run in the first quarter and Reed's go-ahead score in the third quarter demonstrated the athleticism gap that still exists between the teams.
Thompson took advantage when a safety pursued too tight an angle. Reed benefited when two defenders slipped as he weaved through the Maryland defense.
Besides those plays, the Seminoles had 240 yards on 55 snaps. That's a good enough defensive performance to win on most nights.
4. Maryland suffered its first loss of 2014 in the process.
The Terps came close -- much as they did two weeks earlier against Miami -- before succumbing, but they endured a long-term hit in the process.
Center Bennett Fulper left in the first half with a hand injury, forcing the Terps to shuffle their injury-riddled offensive line in the process. Right tackle Paul Pinegar moved back to center (where he started the season) and left tackle R.J. Dill moved to right tackle. True freshman Max Garcia then made his first appearance, settling in at left tackle for a quarter before X-rays on Fulper proved negative.
Maryland was high on Garcia, one of the jewels of a recruiting class it salvaged even as concern about coach Ralph Friedgen's future swirled after last season. The Terps hoped to redshirt Garcia, but injuries and the pursuit of a division title now cost the Terps a full season of Garcia down the road. It wasn't a bad call by Maryland, which had few available options, but it could be costly in the long run.
5. The Seminoles clinched the game with an eternity remaining -- at least for them.
Florida State lost on the final play of the game against North Carolina and won on a last-second field goal against Clemson. A few weeks earlier, Ponder's fumble in the final minute sealed a loss at N.C. State.
So going up two scores with 36 seconds left? That was a piece of cake.
The funny thing is things might have taken a crazy turn had Maryland scored when it trailed 23-16. Friedgen said after the game he planned to go for two -- and the win --- if the Terps scored with less than a minute remaining.
Where They're At
Florida State has a share of a division title to its name and has followed up a pair of losses with consecutive victories. The Seminoles also went 4-1 against the Atlantic Division for the first time since the ACC's divisional format was established in 2005.
Maryland's hopes of its first ACC title since 2001 evaporated despite leading early in the second half and maintaining a chance to win into the final minute. Since 2005, the Terps are 1-10 in the final two games of regular seasons.
Where They're Headed
Florida State probably locked up a high-profile bowl appearance even if N.C. State doesn't lose next week.
Still, there are other issues for the Seminoles.
"We gotta worry about those Gators," Fisher said.
Florida State has dropped six straight to Florida, and the Gators hold a 182-58 scoring edge in the five meetings since Urban Meyer took over. An ACC title wouldn't hurt, but there's little doubt a victory over even the shakiest Florida outfit since the Zook Interregnum would galvanize Fisher's efforts to revitalize the Seminoles.
Maryland can still spoil N.C. State's season, and there is a fantastic subplot to next week's game. Friction surfaced last season between Friedgen and Maryland athletic director Debbie Yow as the Terps reeled toward a 2-10 season, and Friedgen's generous contract denied Yow the chance to buy him out and make a coaching change. She left for N.C. State over the summer, and Friedgen has engineered a five-win improvement. It could be an interesting reunion.
Yet even with a victory, the politics of bowl selection mean the Terps are most likely to land in the Dec. 29 Military Bowl at RFK Stadium in Washington. That might not seem too fair after remaining in the division race deep into November, but it's not the worst thing for Maryland to play a de facto home game in the postseason after enduring last year's debacle and the ensuing offseason of self-reflection.
For more from Patrick Stevens, read the Mid-Atlantic sports blog D1scourse.com