Florida State overcomes tough Miami test

MIAMI -- They were warned. All week they were warned.

Forget about what you think you know about Miami, the coaches said. Forget about what you think you see on tape when you watch Miami. Forget it all. Because come Saturday night, you will see the real Miami.

So yes, Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher and his staff tried as hard as they could to make their players truly understand they were going to get a feisty team, a physical team, a team dead-set on pulling the upset and knocking the Seminoles right out of the ACC championship race.

They got that Miami right out of the gate, and, well, it sent Florida State reeling. The No. 14 Seminoles looked sluggish, and started to make untimely mistakes. Nick O'Leary made like an Olympic hurdler and fumbled on the Seminoles' first possession. Miami capitalized and scored its first touchdown. The fumbles were contagious, and soon Florida State was losing the football, losing its grip and facing a 10-0 deficit.

Then the next bit of adversity hit: Florida State saw star running back Chris Thompson go down.

Then more: a mountain of yellow flags piled up, some of them highly questionable -- certainly enough for young men to lose their composure.

Florida State could have easily crumbled, the way we have seen in the past. But this was a test this team needed, a test the Seminoles had to face head-on, with eyes unblinking. This was their first bit of adversity since the fourth quarter against NC State, and everybody on this team needed to see how their teammates would respond.

"When we got back in the locker room at halftime, we said, 'Look, another 30 minutes. We’re not letting up. Let’s play like it’s 0-0. Let’s play like it’s the national championship," safety Xavier Rhodes said. "We learned our lesson from that loss. It paid off this game here."

Florida State took a 13-10 halftime lead and turned it into a 33-20 victory, completely dominating in the second half with a superior run game, a superior defense and the maturity needed to overcome such adversity.

After fumbling four times in the first half -- and losing two -- Florida State fumbled only one more time and managed to hang on to the ball.

After racking up nine penalties for 82 yards in the first half, Florida State had three more for 39.

After losing Thompson, the Noles found Devonta Freeman, who played inspired football with 70 yards rushing and two touchdowns in front of the family and friends who cheered him on and supported him when he was a boy growing up in South Florida.

"I thought it was very big for our kids to overcome what they did today," coach Jimbo Fisher said. "I think it's very big in our development. And that's something we haven't done all year, and to battle in that circumstance and the environment and all the things that went wrong, we could've did the same thing we did up at NC State, but we didn't. We battled back through it and kept staying aggressive in what we were doing, and the kids fought through it."

Players pointed to different reasons for the sluggish start. They were overhyped; they were emotional; they were distracted; they wanted to make every play so badly because of the high rivalry-game stakes.

"We gave those guys a jump-start into what they’re doing," quarterback EJ Manuel said. "They’re revved up, it’s their homecoming, and we just can’t do that. We put ourselves behind the eight-ball, but luckily we were able to get points before the half and that set us up in the second half."

The initial plan out of halftime was to score a touchdown to deliver the knockout blow. Florida State received the kickoff and made it as far as the Miami 27 before the always-reliable Dustin Hopkins missed a 44-yard field goal wide left. So the mistakes continued. But the defense forced a three-and-out, and Florida State managed a field goal on its next possession.

Miami would not go away, and played extremely inspired behind quarterback Stephen Morris, a surprise starter after being listed as doubtful going into the game. Rhodes said the Noles prepared all week as if they would see Morris, believing there might have been some gamesmanship going on from the Miami side.

Trailing 16-13, the Hurricanes were still in the game when the fourth quarter began. But the Seminoles finally put together a dominant quarter, scoring on three consecutive possessions to take a commanding 33-13 lead. Freeman scored two rushing touchdowns in the spree, and the Noles could breathe a little easier.

Florida State held the ball for nearly 10 minutes in the fourth quarter, rushing for 79 yards. Miami, on the other hand, held the ball for a little more than five minutes and ran for minus-7 yards. The Hurricanes also lost freshman running back Duke Johnson in the game. But the Noles had worn them down.

"Their hits were much softer than they were in the first half," FSU receiver Kelvin Benjamin admitted.

Florida State took all the hits, the hard hits, the soft hits, and found a way to win.

Fisher needed to see that. The Seminoles players needed to see that. Now, more than ever.