TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- With two minutes to go in regulation Saturday night, the end seemed near -- for both the ACC and Florida State.
Jameis Winston stood in track pants on the sideline, his suspension threatening to shred national championship hopes. His backup, Sean Maguire, had just thrown a bad pass that Clemson safety Jadar Johnson easily intercepted, putting the Tigers in prime position to win.
On second-and-2 from the Florida State 18, C.J. Davidson took the ball. All the Tigers had to do was get a few more yards to set up for a game-winning field goal. Florida State defensive tackle Eddie Goldman converged, and got his hand on the ball. It squirted out.
Hearts sank on the Clemson sideline. The nation had seen Clemson fumble opportunities before, mistakes that have turned its school name into a verb that has come to symbolize what it means to give away games.
But this fumbled opportunity became a golden gift for the Seminoles, and, in turn, the ACC. Momentum shifted in an instant. There was no way Florida State would lose this game now, not with its suddenly rejuvenated defense leading the way. Overtime arrived, and the Seminoles’ defense made another huge play, stopping Clemson on fourth-and-short.
All that was left was victory. Karlos Williams, ineffective all night, knew what he had to do. He would not let his teammates down. His 12-yard touchdown run gave No. 1 Florida State a 23-17 win, preserving its championship hopes and saving face for the ACC.
“It just shows we have great players on this football team besides Jameis Winston,” Williams said. “Although he's our captain, he's our leader, he's the best player in college football, we showed tonight we also have great players on this football team -- Rashad Greene, Bobo Wilson. Sean Maguire is a great quarterback. I believe that we proved we're Florida State and we're on the right track.”
With all due respect to Clemson, the ACC needed Florida State to pull out the win. Saturday was the worst weekend of the year for the ACC, as the league went 3-5 in nonconference play against FBS opponents, including an ugly 0-3 against the Big Ten.
Had Clemson won, the ACC would have gone from front-runner to outsider praying for a shot in the College Football Playoff.
Watching Florida State win the national title last year helped get the ACC some major respect. Watching Florida State go down at home in September to a team it has owned the past two seasons would not make a compelling case for inclusion. While it is true a one-loss Florida State team may not have been completely eliminated from contention, the ACC strength of schedule is simply not going to hold up this season against the SEC, Big 12 and Pac-12. Not with the Week 4 results as an example.
So to guarantee staying alive for another week, Florida State had to win. It looked bleak in the early going, with the Clemson defensive line dominating and Clemson freshman quarterback Deshaun Watson taking a star turn of his own.
While Clemson played better for large parts of the game, it left points all over the field -- unacceptable for a team with its own championship hopes. Cole Stoudt, who started the game at quarterback, missed a shot at a sure touchdown in the first quarter when he threw the ball at his receiver’s feet. Clemson missed a field goal.
In the third quarter, Clemson had first-and-goal on the 1. A bad snap sailed over Watson’s head on second down. Clemson ended up missing another field goal. All the while Maguire started playing better, and so did his offensive line. It helped that Greene and Nick O’Leary were more involved, a big reason why the Noles stayed in the game.
But the biggest play of all belonged to Goldman, who matter-of-factly described his crucial forced fumble late in the fourth quarter.
“I knew it came loose,” he said. “When you're in the heat of the moment, you're not really thinking.”
Was there ever a moment of doubt when his teammates took the field, with the clock winding down and Clemson in prime position to win the game?
“You can't think of losing,” Goldman said. “One thing that Jimbo Fisher tells us is that you're never out of the fight until it's over. That's the mentality.”
Winston will be back at practice Monday. He will be under center next Saturday, when Florida State continues its playoff quest at NC State. The Seminoles proved they can win with Winston, and they can win without Winston.
Now they need to prove they can keep on winning. Because once again, the Noles are left alone carrying the banner for themselves.
And the banner for the ACC.