ARLINGTON, Texas – Florida State players did not leave the field Saturday in a celebratory mood. Most stared straight ahead. Many looked whipped, mostly because they were. They had beaten Oklahoma State, but not in the way they or anyone else expected. The Cowboys were supposed to be rebuilding. The Seminoles still had the nucleus of the team that steamrolled its regular-season competition and squeaked by Auburn in the BCS Championship Game in January.
Saturday’s visit to JerryWorld wasn’t supposed to be close, but the scoreboard cares none about preseason hype. Florida State won 37-31, and not because Oklahoma State played a perfect game against America’s superteam. The Cowboys made their share of mistakes. According to Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy, none cost more than an errant third-quarter punt snap that gave the Seminoles the ball at their own 44 when they should have gotten it inside their own 10 while clinging to a 20-17 lead. If Oklahoma State pins Florida State, stops the Seminoles and then scores to take the lead there, the Seminoles might not have been able to fight their way back. The Cowboys might have beaten the defending national champs and the preseason No. 1 team. Instead, Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston capped that possession with a 28-yard quarterback draw that gave the Seminoles a 10-point lead and what felt like their only momentum of the second half.
After that, Florida State hung on tight. The Seminoles didn’t look like the group that buzzsawed every opponent from Labor Day to December in 2013. They looked like a team of wily veterans clinging to a lead against an opponent that turned out to be far better than expected. “Last year is over,” Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said. “Tonight, I think, will help us get over that. We weren’t living that way. We all preached it. But I think they were feeling the pressure of being No. 1. I really do.”
Meanwhile, Fisher put extra pressure on his veterans by not playing some of the youngsters whose star-studded recruiting rankings suggested the Seminoles could duplicate the depth they had last year. Mario Edwards, a 300-pound defensive end, said he played every snap against Oklahoma State’s up-tempo offense. That isn’t supposed to happen. Edwards’ backup, 277-pounder DeMarcus Walker, had to start at Sam linebacker Saturday after Chris Casher was held out because of an academic issue. Receiver Rashad Greene, who led the Seminoles with 11 catches for 203 yards, said he played every offensive snap. That isn’t supposed to happen, either. Fisher had planned to insert true freshman tailback Dalvin Cook at some point, but Karlos Williams and Mario Pender, who are in their fourth and third years with the program, got all the carries. Why didn’t Fisher play Cook? “The game got crazy,” Fisher said. And when the game is crazy – but still quite winnable – coaches aren’t inclined to play true freshmen who may or may not remember all the protection schemes.
Gundy didn’t have that luxury. He had no choice but to play inexperienced Cowboys. But guess what? When the lights shone brightest, they excelled. They fell behind 17-0 and then gave the defending national champs hell for two and a half quarters. “You don’t ever know what to expect with so many young players on the field,” Gundy said. “But there was not any fear in any of their eyes. … They made mistakes, but they made mistakes going full speed. And that’s the future of your program. The guys didn’t have the deer-in-the-headlights look at all.”
Eleven Cowboys made their first Oklahoma State start. These included sophomore defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah, who sacked Winston twice, and cornerback Ashton Lampkin, who intercepted Winston once. Junior college transfer Tyreek Hill also saw his first playing time as a Cowboy, and he’ll be running through the nightmares of every Big 12 defensive coordinator who flips on SportsCenter this weekend. Against what may be the fastest, most athletic team on Oklahoma State’s schedule, Hill carried eight times for 44 yards. He caught six passes for 62 yards. He returned two punts for 32 yards. He returned six kickoffs for 140 yards. “It was just one game for him,” Gundy said. “But he certainly was willing to stand toe-to-toe. And that’s what it takes.”
Fisher will need to decide he trusts his less experienced players to go toe-to-toe. Last year, after Pittsburgh failed to provide an opening-night challenge, Florida State didn’t face any real adversity until Boston College in game No. 4. That allowed plenty of time to develop younger players. This season is different. The Seminoles get a visit from The Citadel next week, an open date and then a visit from Clemson on Sept. 20 for what likely will be the de facto ACC Atlantic Division title game. If the Seminoles want to win another national title, they likely have to beat the Tigers, who run an even faster offense than the Cowboys. If Florida State can’t find defensive line depth to give Edwards, tackle Eddie Goldman and the rest of the starters necessary breaks, the Tigers might get stronger on offense as the game progresses -- just as the Cowboys did Saturday. “We were out there making mental mistakes and basically giving them yards,” Edwards said of the defense in the later stages of Saturday’s win. He also said the mood in the locker room was serious. “Coming into this game, we didn’t think we would just win by six. A lot of these were self-inflicted wounds.”
Meanwhile, Florida State needs to discover a playmaker besides Greene. Winston threw two interceptions Saturday, and if defenses know he’s locking in on Greene, he'll throw many more as the season progresses. Sophomore Kermit Whitfield caught three passes Saturday. But freshmen Travis Rudolph and Ermon Lane, who were expected to contribute quickly, didn’t catch any. Greene would be happy if more players got targeted, but those players have to earn those passes. “Spread the love, man,” Greene said. “Get in the game and show me what you can do. Don’t just tell me.”
If any of the Seminoles thought their path to a second national title would be easy, they were disabused of that notion Saturday. “We have to get better,” Winston said. “That’s eye-opening.” They will get every opponent’s best shot, and they’ll need to develop the depth required to chase that second title. Last year is history, and the Seminoles can’t coast into the first edition of the College Football Playoff on reputation alone. “Everybody in there knows we’re a lot better than we played,” Greene said. “We need to get back in the lab.”