No letting up for FSU

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Dustin Hopkins exploded into Florida State's locker room at halftime with as much fervor as a kicker can muster. Ahead by 24 in a game Florida State dominated, Hopkins had reason to be excited, but he wasn't interested in celebrating.

"You all remember NC State," Hopkins announced to a crowd of teammates. "Let's keep it up."

The message was repeated by several teammates in segment meetings during the break, and it resonated throughout the sidelines as the Seminoles added two quick touchdowns in the second half to ice a 48-7 win over Duke.

The ghosts of Florida State's second-half collapse against NC State were present in the fourth quarter, too, when Jimbo Fisher huddled his starters around him and demanded more.

The Seminoles were in command of Saturday's game, but three fumbles in the third quarter had undermined the dominance, so Fisher sent quarterback EJ Manuel and the rest of the starters back on to the field despite a big lead. There was a message being sent -- the same one Hopkins delivered in the locker room.

"I wanted to get our rhythm back," Fisher said. "If they wanted out [of the game] they should've played better. I wanted them to understand the intensity of it."

Among the players, there's a palpable apprehension when it comes to reliving the ugly affair in Raleigh, N.C., when the Seminoles watched a 16-0 halftime lead and their hopes for a national championship slip away.

There's a reluctance to discuss the details, a tinge of post-traumatic stress. And yet the loss still returns as a focal point again and again.

"I can't say whether we're better or worse, but I think we learned from it," Manuel said. "It was a learning experience we had to go through. There's nothing we can do about it now except to learn from it."

Four weeks ago Florida State's offense slumbered, fortified by a lead that didn't hold up. On Saturday, Manuel and the Seminoles rarely gave Duke a chance to breathe.

For the fifth time this season, Florida State topped 500 yards of offense. Manuel completed just eight passes, but five were for 30 yards or more. The defense dominated a Duke team that foolishly believed it had turned a corner, that it might compete with big, bad Florida State. Instead, it was the Blue Devils' 18th loss in as many tries against the Seminoles.

With starting tailback Chris Thompson out for the season, Devonta Freeman and James Wilder Jr. stepped in to combine for 174 yards and three touchdowns on the ground. Duke receivers Jamison Crowder and Conner Vernon earned plenty of hype in the week leading up to the game, but the Seminoles' defense held the pair to just 28 yards.

It was a dominant performance for Florida State against a Duke team atop the ACC's Coastal Division standings, and if it weren't for that lone loss against NC State, it might well have been FSU's latest statement that it deserved consideration to be ranked among the nation's best.

Instead, the Seminoles settled for a consolation prize. After the starters were finally pulled from the game in the fourth quarter, the score of NC State's game against North Carolina flashed on the scoreboard. The Wolfpack had lost, and Florida State was once again in control of its own destiny in the division. Wins over Virginia Tech and Maryland, and the Seminoles are guaranteed a trip to the ACC championship game.

Again, there was no celebration, but there was a sense that some great wrong had been made right.

"We're not sitting back and saying it's a relief they lost," linebacker Christian Jones said. "But we do control our own future, and we have our second wind. I think we're just going to get better."

That's a scary thought, Duke coach David Cutcliffe said.

"I think that's the best team in the country," Cutcliffe said. "I've been around a long time, and I don't think they have a weakness."

Until that loss to NC State, many of the Seminoles might have agreed. They're not so ignorant now.

It's the paradox of losing. That second-half collapse remains the one smudge on an increasingly impressive resume, but it's also the driving force behind their quest to move on.

"We feel like we're ready to prove everybody wrong, that we had that one loss but we let that go and we're ready to move on," Xavier Rhodes said. "To prove to everybody this is the team they thought it would be."