LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Florida State’s players, coaching staff and administrators should all earn honorary doctorates in drama after this season. Each week for this 2014 Seminole team seems to outdo the next. When the police are circling, the Title IX investigators lurking and the opponent jumps out to a three-touchdown lead, that’s when Florida State plays its best.
In front of a hostile crowd at Louisville on Thursday night, trailing 21-0 and facing the No. 1 defense in the country, the Seminoles again exhibited their defining trait -- the uncanny ability to escape trouble. When Florida State should be falling apart at the seams, it somehow becomes a juggernaut.
Led by two long second-half touchdown runs by Dalvin Cook (40 and 38 yards) the No. 2 Seminoles managed to dig themselves out of another hole. Just like against Clemson. Just like against Notre Dame. Just like against Auburn back in the BCS title game in January. When trouble arises on the field, Florida State rises above it.
“We control what we can control,” FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said, with his smile and West Virginia twang contrasting with his seemingly prepared answers.
Florida State’s knack to outrace trouble is, if anything, more perplexing than impressive. Many of the gnarly situations, on and off the field, have been self-induced.
Winston’s multiple off-field issues – one very serious rape accusation and a host of other poor decisions – have clung to the program for nearly a year. This week, police drew interest into two off-field incidents involving starting tailback Karlos Williams, a domestic case and a drug deal turned violent. This came days after Fisher lauded Williams as an “ambassador” for the university. Florida State couldn’t even hold the most mundane of football activities, the pre-game walkthrough, without it becoming a national story. The Seminoles held it in the city’s most wide-open public park on Wednesday and vigilantly patrolled the perimeters to be sure no one took pictures. In public. Of course.
Florida State’s 21-0 second-quarter deficit was also self-induced. Winston threw back-to-back interceptions in the first half and struggled to move the ball against Louisville’s top-ranked defense. The Cardinals, meanwhile, moved the ball effectively behind coach Bobby Petrino’s uncanny play calling, Michael Dyer’s rushing and the newly healthy DeVante Parker. One NFL scout said Thursday that Parker was the best player on a field full of top NFL prospects. “When they have the No. 1 defense and we’re down 21-0, what were you all saying?” Winston asked. “Crickets.”
What we should have said is that we’ve seen this script before. With everything crumbling -- the game, its season and national title hopes -- Florida State felt right at home. “It was as if,” defensive end Eddie Goldman said, “we were tied.”
Florida State found some momentum, and luck, late in the first half. It put together a six-play, 78-yard drive that tight end Nick O’Leary capped when he hopped on a Williams fumble in the end zone to make the score 21-7, kicking off a 41-10 run. Even when Winston looked like he quelled his team's momentum with an interception on the first play of the second half, the 'Noles got the break they needed.
After Louisville’s Gerod Holliman picked off Winston's first throw of the half, the Heisman-winning QB bolted toward the Cardinals safety and forced a fumble that perfectly summed up Florida State's season thus far. When things appear most dire, it swings momentum the other way. Winston finished with 401 yards passing and three touchdowns to counteract his career-high three interceptions.
“I had to do something,” Winston said. “That was the third one. I never threw three picks in my whole life. I gotta make some type of play. When I’m throwing picks I have to try and get me some turnovers myself.”
Florida State's countless off-field issues have obscured its brilliance on it. The Seminoles have won 24 consecutive games and piled up more second-half yards and second-half points on Thursday – 374 and 35 – than Louisville had given up in any entire game this season. But instead of discussing the Seminoles' on-field greatness, the conversation usually revolves around lawyer wrangling and potential suspensions. The discussion isn’t about Winston and his 22-0 record as a starting quarterback, it’s about Title IX investigations and administrative incompetence.
The drumbeat of trouble that’s provided the background music to this Florida State season is underscored every time an FSU PR official asks that questions only about football be asked to Winston before he takes the podium.
A Louisville victory wouldn't have been much of a 'feel-good' story. We could have been writing about a breakthrough win for coach Bobby Petrino, who cheated on his wife, hired his mistress and lied to his bosses while at Arkansas. Or the main story could have been Dyer, whose issues with guns and drugs led to his dismissals at Auburn and Arkansas State. Dyer finished with 134 yards, looking every bit the player who twisted away from Oregon to lead Auburn to the national title three years ago.
The running joke on Twitter was that Florida State’s cauldron of trouble, negativity and dysfunction somehow forced America to root for Petrino. And that is no easy task.
Winston showed up for his postgame press conference wearing his maroon Nike warm-up pants and a purple pin stripe shirt and tie. Winston was charming and engaging in his press conference, his glee and tone -- “God is good” -- making him seemingly oblivious to his status as one of the most ridiculed and reviled athletes in America.
Instead, Winston flashed an easy smile and sauntered off to the hugs and plaudits of staffers and family members. They’ve seen this before, as Florida State continues to stay numb to adversity as it exhibits its defining trait – the ability to escape dire situations unscathed.