Florida State University

Florida State Seminoles vow to stay focused in Peach Bowl

Florida State running back Dalvin Cook runs against Georgia Tech defensive back Lawrence Austin during the first half of their matchup on Oct. 24 in Atlanta.
Florida State running back Dalvin Cook runs against Georgia Tech defensive back Lawrence Austin during the first half of their matchup on Oct. 24 in Atlanta. AP

The reminder is there each day Florida State rolls up to its practice site for the Peach Bowl.

Bobby Dodd Stadium, on the campus of Georgia Tech, in plain sight.

The memories can be painful — Roberto Aguayo lining up for what many expected to be a 56-yard game-winning field goal, instead the low kick blocked, scooped up and returned 78 yards, stunning the Seminoles.

The loss — FSU’s first during the regular season in 35 months — could have sent the ninth-ranked Seminoles into a tailspin.

Instead, “It woke everybody up. Everyone was focused,” running back Dalvin Cook said. “We came back to practice, the looks on their faces. … Before that, we were comfortable.”

The Seminoles vowed not to let that happen again. And although two weeks later they would drop a second game, this one to Clemson in Death Valley, it was different. The Tigers were on their way to an undefeated regular season and top billing in the College Football Playoff, and the teams were separated by just a field goal midway through the fourth quarter.

“At Georgia Tech, we left a lot of plays on the field,” Cook said. “Even though we lost to Clemson, we played our hearts out. We laid it all on the line. [The Tech loss] kind of refocused us.”

Defensive tackle Nile Lawrence-Stample is one of the seniors seeking their NCAA record-tying 50th victory in Thursday’s Peach Bowl against No. 18 Houston. Lawrence-Stample was part of a stifling national-championship defense in 2013 and a vastly underachieving group last season.

As for the 2015 defense, “We definitely overachieved as a defense,” Lawrence-Stample said. “I think we hunkered down and did not worry about anything and really just played our game. I think that’s exactly what we did.”

The same could be said for the Seminoles as a team, even though the offense — with the exception of mercurial Cook — stumbled around at times and was forced to go through a transformation late in the season with a change at quarterback.

The Seminoles were not expected to win the ACC, with Clemson the overwhelming pick to win the Atlantic Division. Most had FSU losing three (which it still could) or four games after losing 11 players in the 2015 draft, which contributed to an NCAA record 29 picks in the last three years.

FSU was young and inexperienced, especially on offense, where the entire two-deep roster from the Peach Bowl returns.

“It’s pretty crazy to think that on offense we got 11 returning starters next year,” said Sean Maguire, who replaced graduate transfer Everett Golson as the Seminoles’ starting quarterback for good in the 10th game of the season.

Fisher says the biggest difference was the “expectations.” The 2014 team returned several starters from the undefeated 2013 champions, including Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Jameis Winston.

This year’s team was nowhere near that experienced.

“This group was different,” Fisher said. “It came in … ‘OK, we got a lot of young guys, guys that haven’t had leadership roles, never been in those roles, I’ve got something to prove.’

“And at times, this team was extremely fun to coach and sometimes it was frustrating, not in a bad way but from an urgency standpoint that you knew it was there for them. It’s almost like they couldn’t see the prize that was right there.”

The light came on, though, late in the season. Sure, the Seminoles got off to a 6-0 start, but it wasn’t a convincing 6-0. The offense was inconsistent, not just from game to game but sometimes from half to half, and was bailed out by the defense at Boston College and even Wake Forest.

Then came the shocking loss at Georgia Tech and perhaps the most important week of practice.

With the exception of the first quarter against N.C. State, a quarter that convinced Fisher a change had to be made at quarterback, the Seminoles rebounded nicely, ending the season on the upswing with a resounding 27-2 victory at Florida.

“I just think this team has grown so much from the first game to now,” Maguire said.

Fisher was especially pleased with this team’s work ethic and willingness to learn, something that probably could not be said about the 2014 group.

While the 2015 team is defined by players like Javien Elliott, a former walk-on who worked his way up to a starter after nickelback Trey Marshall was injured, the 2014 team featured players like Ronald Darby and P.J. Williams, cornerbacks who never played up to the talent that allowed both to be drafted within the top three rounds.

“The thing that made it fun, even when you got frustrated with them or you pushed them or you challenged them, they never quit fighting for the inches,” Fisher said.

Still, “rebuilding” is not in Fisher’s vocabulary. He believes Florida State is beyond that. Perhaps “reloading” is a better way to describe a program whose worst year since 2010 could conclude with two losses.

“I don’t ever look at rebuilding,” Fisher said. “Rebuilding says I got to go out and find this, I got to find that.

“But I have that. I just got to shape it, I got to form it and I got to get it to understand what I think.”

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