Tuesday, December 11, 2012
Top 5 moments: Late collapse
By David M. Hale
With 2012 winding to a close, we're counting down the five biggest moments of the past season for Florida State -- those plays that defined 2012. Coming in at No. 4: Bryan Underwood's game-winning touchdown that ended FSU's hopes for a national title.
Perfection ended for Florida State in the most painful way possible.
In early October, the Seminoles left for Raleigh, N.C., with a sterling 5-0 record, but their only road test had been a short trip to USF, where nearly half the stadium was packed with FSU fans. The trip to NC State would be different -- far more hostile. But few players were concerned.
Bryan Underwood's game-winning TD reception with 16 seconds left was the last of countless tiny cuts FSU suffered against the Wolfpack.
Just a year earlier, the Wolfpack were routed by Florida State at Doak Campbell Stadium, and just a week earlier, NC State's secondary was torched by Miami to the tune of 566 passing yards. With EJ Manuel under center and the Seminoles' explosive offense ready for a road show, even a somewhat sluggish first half, which left FSU with a 16-0 lead, did little to dampen anyone's enthusiasm.
But if the first 22 quarters of football in 2012 had been an emphatic confirmation of all the preseason expectations, the next two would erode months of good will, reignite a decade's worth of frustrations and, most importantly, add nothing to that 16-point lead that slowly disappeared amid an endless array of dinks and dunks by the NC State offense that ultimately led to Bryan Underwood's 2-yard touchdown reception that sent the Seminoles to their first loss of the season.
"We kept stopping them and they kept hitting us on fourth downs, third downs, late," defensive tackle Everett Dawkins said. "They just kept moving the ball down the field."
There were, of course, myriad opportunities to seal the game before Underwood scored on a pass from Mike Glennon with just 16 seconds to play to give NC State its first lead of the game.
The first half ended with Florida State settling for field goals twice inside the Wolfpack's red zone, and Manuel's inability to take advantage of those early scoring chances would come back to haunt him.
The second half began with one promising play offensively before the Seminoles completely lost their mojo. Chris Thompson, who had run for 115 yards in the first half, added just 26 more the rest of the way, even as Jimbo Fisher continued to call one running play after another. Manuel, who two weeks earlier was being lauded as a Heisman contender, couldn't find open receivers and was overwhelmed by an NC State pass rush that sacked him four times -- including a brutal 15-yard loss on a bootleg that pushed FSU out of field goal range with just 9:26 to play. The special teams also struggled, with punter Cason Beatty getting a punt blocked to set up the Wolfpack's final drive with exceptional field position.
Whatever could go wrong for FSU in the second half did go wrong, but perhaps no one was more frustrated than the defense.
NC State had just one drive of at least 60 yards, and that one ended in a field goal. Glennon had just one passing play go for more than 20 yards, but the underneath passes proved an endless barrage of struggles for the Seminoles. On that final drive after Beatty's blocked punt, the defense stuffed NC State three times on third down, but it couldn't get off the field on fourth down.
Finally, on a fourth-and-goal that promised to decide the game in either direction, Glennon found Underwood in the middle of the end zone, NC State took a 17-16 lead, and FSU's hoped of an undefeated season and a national championship were gone.
"It's just hard because they're getting what they can from us," linebacker Christian Jones said. "Most of the game we covered them pretty well, but all those little yards add up."
The aftermath was tumultuous. Fisher shouldered the blame when the game ended, then deferred much of it by Monday to his players for failed execution. That led to even more backlash from fans, and demands for Fisher to hire a full-time play caller have been rampant ever since. Manuel's Heisman campaign came to an unofficial end, and much of the good work he'd done two weeks earlier against Clemson was overwhelmed by the struggles against NC State. The national title talk disappeared completely, but Bjoern Werner urged his teammates to keep focus on winning the conference, and his resolution and determination did help FSU right the ship for a five-game winning streak afterward.
In the end, the loss to NC State isn't what cost FSU it's shot at a national title. Instead, it simply unearthed some significant concerns that had been dormant through the first five games. But as the season progressed, NC State fared worse and eventually fired its head coach, and that dismal second-half collapse remains FSU's most inexplicable moment of the season, if not its most significant.