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Perseverance propels Seminoles -- again

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- Jameis Winston walked off the field as a winner again, leading yet another comeback to keep the most scrutinized team in America unbeaten.

He looked up at the Miami fans screaming above the tunnel to the locker room and put his finger to his lips and tapped, his way of shushing the crowd. Florida State had survived once again, but there may not be any hushing the next wave of criticism that is sure to come.

The Seminoles can no longer quiet their critics with their play on the field. That much has become obvious throughout the course of a season that has included too many second-half comebacks for anybody to embrace. Though Florida State fought back to beat rival Miami, 30-26, Saturday night in front of a crowd that comes to life for this game -- and this game only -- coach Jimbo Fisher was left to defend his team again.

After its 26th consecutive victory.

Only this time, he did not wait for questions. In his opening statement, almost defiantly, he announced, “Everybody talks about this team, it doesn’t do this, it doesn’t do that. Measure this team for 60 minutes. When you measure this team for 60 minutes, it measures up pretty daggone good. To anybody. Anywhere.

“Everybody has flaws. But this team, what we’ve done here -- they believe in each other, they love each other. … They never panic, they look each other in the eye, and they handle the next play.”

As if on cue, Miami raced out to a 23-7 second-quarter lead behind freshman quarterback Brad Kaaya, who took command of the game early as the Hurricanes threw a curveball at the Florida State defense. The Noles anticipated seeing a heavy dose of running back Duke Johnson. But Miami knew that.

So the Canes put the ball in Kaaya’s hands, taking advantage of mismatches they had with tight end Clive Walford. Kaaya owned the first half, going 10-of-17 for 240 yards with 2 touchdowns.

Meanwhile, the Florida State offense sputtered along, unable to string together drives with any consistency. It would have been surprising, had it not happened so many times already this season. But like clockwork, the second half began and Miami began imploding. A turnover here. A personal foul penalty over there. Stalled drives everywhere.

The Noles scored first in the third quarter, when Karlos Williams caught a ball that was deflected and landed right in his arms, and that is when you knew this game had turned.

“We needed a break, you know,” Winston said.

Miami managed a field goal the rest of the game. Dalvin Cook, a superstar in the making, had the game-winning run the way he did against Louisville last month, in a win that ended up being the largest come-from-behind victory in school history.

“Pressure breaks pipes, or it makes diamonds, and right now we’re shining,” receiver Rashad Greene said.

Maybe Florida State is living on fumes, or maybe the Noles picked up a little of that “team of destiny” fairy dust Auburn left on the field in the BCS national championship game in January. Because when Winston is asked how this team has changed its identity so rapidly from one that majors in blowouts, to one that cannot thrive unless it is playing from behind, he points to that very game.

“We persevered,” Winston said. “We’re going to start getting out the gates pretty soon here, but if you look back from my first game of this year we had to persevere and get a good win.”

Maybe the Noles will get a good win. Maybe they won’t. Because the schedule does not allow for a win the rest of the season that would impress much of anybody, not with Boston College, Florida and either Duke or Georgia Tech remaining.

What counts as a good win, anyway? Florida State’s strength of schedule imploded before the ball was snapped in South Florida on Saturday night. Florida lost; Clemson lost; Notre Dame lost; and to cap it off, Oklahoma State lost. When people ask, “Name a big win for the Seminoles this year,” there is only one answer that fits.

How about 10 of them? Because right now, Florida State is the only unbeaten Power 5 team remaining. We can debate conference schedules, and who would do what if they switched leagues, but that point is worthless. Because teams in the SEC take full advantage of living in a world where their schedule is deemed tougher automatically.

SEC teams like Alabama can afford a loss.

ACC teams like Florida State simply cannot. So the wins should be appreciated, even if they look ugly sometimes.

“When you’re on the top, there’s nowhere else you can go but down, and everybody knows that, everybody’s going to bring their best shot, take us down,” said Jalen Ramsey, who sealed the victory with an interception. “I don’t think the world really understands how hard it is. At the end of the day, we’re still getting wins.

“I’m so happy that this year we’re doing a playoff so they’ll definitely get to see who the best team is.”

If that team ends up being Florida State again, maybe then the critics will be hushed.

Maybe.