It was Jameis Winston’s worst game at Florida State — and quite likely his final one in front of the home fans at Doak Campbell Stadium. And on the other side of the field, it was Will Muschamp’s last game giving orders on the Florida sideline as the Gators’ coach.
Turned out the story backdrops involving the two rivals were more compelling than the game itself, a sloppy 24-19 victory by Florida State that once again became a harrowing walk on the edge for the defending national champions.
Winston looked a shell of last year’s Heisman Trophy winner, throwing a career-high four interceptions for a career-low 125 yards. And yet Winston and the Seminoles managed yet again to squeak out the victory to remain the nation’s only unbeaten team at 12-0.
The win kept the shaky Seminoles, No.3 in the College Football Playoff rankings, in line for a shot at a second national title in a row and gave them back-to-back unbeaten regular-season slates for the first time in school history.
“Survive and advance, and I think that’s what we did,” Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher said after another less-than-overwhelming performance.
The Seminoles have survived one close call after another this season, scraping out victories on nights when they look anything like last year’s force. With Winston off target for much of the game, the Noles turned to their defense and true freshman running back Dalvin Cook to post their 28th consecutive victory.
Cook, a former Miami Central standout, rushed for 144 yards, and Florida State’s defense made up for Winston’s accuracy issues, permitting the Gators to score only a pair of field goals from the quarterback’s four interceptions.
“He didn’t have his ‘A” game,” Fisher said of Winston, stating the obvious. “The trump card today was Dalvin Cook and the offensive line.”
The Seminoles had to find help from a source other than Winston, who isn’t even mentioned in the Heisman conversation nowadays.
It was another poor first half for Winston, who has been prone to them.
Winston threw three interceptions in the first quarter alone Saturday. For that matter, he completed more passes to Gators defenders (three) than he did to his own receivers during the game’s first 15 minutes. Of his 17 interceptions, seven more than he totaled all last season, 13 were thrown in the first half.
“I know I’ve got to get better with my performance so I can lead this team in a better way,” Winston said afterward.
Compounding matters for the Seminoles was that all three of his first-quarter interceptions gave the ball to the Gators in Florida State territory. But the Gators failed to take full advantage of the turnovers, producing only a pair of field goals off the turnovers, and what was an early 9-0 lead collapsed quickly on a Terrance Smith interception that was returned 94 yards for a touchdown.
“We needed that play, we needed that momentum swing,” Smith said. “A play like that changes the whole momentum of the game. Everybody feeds off a play like that.”
That interception wasn’t the fault of Gators freshman quarterback Treon Harris.
His pass on a first-and-goal play from the FSU was thrown on target into the hands of Gators tight end Tevin Westbrook. But the ball bounced out, into the waiting arms of Smith, who ran it all the way back.
“He has had some opportunities to make some catches,” Muschamp said of Westbrook. “In that situation, catch the ball. We put you on scholarship at Florida, catch it.”
Winston shook off his early miscues, connecting on a pair of touchdown passes to Nick O’Leary that gave FSU a 21-9 lead. But with time winding down in the first half, the Seminoles muffed a punt, the Gators took over at the Noles’ 21, and Harris found Clay Burton in the end zone for a scoring pass that cut the margin to 21-16.
Winston and the Seminoles failed to score a touchdown in the second half, their only points coming on Roberto Aguayo’s 37-yard field goal with under four minutes to go that gave FSU a bit of breathing room.
The Gators had the ball with a chance to win late in the fourth quarter. But, like so many other times this season, they came up short.
And once again, the charmed Seminoles snuck away with another win.
“You look at other games where we have the game in hand, and we had our opportunity to get it done, and we didn’t get it done,” Muschamp said of UF (6-5).
It’s one of the reasons why Muschamp won’t be returning to Gainesville.
“It falls on my shoulders. and that's why they're looking for a new coach,” Muschamp said. “I'll hold my head up. We just didn't win enough games.”
As for Florida State, they have a date Saturday with Georgia Tech for the ACC championship.
“Good enough,” Fisher said of the Seminoles’ unbeaten streak, “is never good enough.”