ATLANTA — Before the kick, before the block, before the scoop, before the score, before the thousands of Georgia Tech students turned Bobby Dodd Stadium into their own postgame playground, Roberto Aguayo knew what he needed to do.
Florida State’s junior placekicker was just the guy you’d want in a situation like this: his Seminoles tied 16-16 with six seconds left, needing a 56-yard field goal to remain unbeaten and in contention for the College Football Playoff. Aguayo, a first-team All-America honoree in 2014, had knocked in a pair of 60-yard boots during pregame warmups Saturday.
If he nailed this final kick, he’d keep Florida State unbeaten. If he missed, the Seminoles would head to overtime.
But Aguayo didn’t plan for Option No. 3: the intersection of his kick with the giant hand of Georgia Tech defensive lineman Patrick Gamble. The 6'5" junior leaped in the air and swatted Aguayo’s potential game-winner, allowing Yellow Jackets defensive back Lance Austin to scoop it up and streak 78 yards for the game-winning score. “It all happened so fast,” Aguayo said. The play sealed Georgia Tech’s epic 22–16 upset of No. 9 Florida State, the second absurdly wonderful, last-minute finish in college football in as many weeks.
“A game like this is going to go down in history,” said Gamble. “I’m going to be old and grey one day, and I can tell my child about this.”
The postgame euphoria in Bobby Dodd Stadium ran counter to the deflation that took place on Florida State’s sideline. The program’s first loss of the season—and its first setback in 29 ACC contests—came on a fluky special teams play just one week after Michigan State picked up a botched Michigan punt and returned it for a similarly improbable game-winning touchdown.
Florida State’s loss felt a bit different, however. For much of the past season and a half, fans watched the once god-like Seminoles play as mere mortals against their ACC schedule only to find ways to remain undefeated. Finally, in a game in which they didn’t play their best, the ‘Noles suffered a loss. A talented Florida State program has likely seen its playoff hopes dashed thanks to a single blocked kick. Now the rest of the season will be defined by how the Seminoles respond to it.
The chaos that surrounded Georgia Tech’s winning play was felt on both sides. After Gamble blocked Aguayo’s kick, the lineman celebrated on the field because he thought the play was dead. “Then I heard the crowd,” Gamble recalled, “and I was like, wait.” Yellow Jackets coach Paul Johnson was likewise confused. “I go from yelling, ‘Get away from it’ to ‘Run, run, run!’” Johnson said.
Aguayo, whose foot set the ‘Noles’ fatal play in motion, tried to save the game with a tackle of Austin at the end of his run. “I grabbed his little play sheet,” Aguayo recalled. “But he went in [to the end zone].”
That’s when the Yellow Jackets student section rambled and wrecked its way onto the field. The ‘Noles could only watch with a feeling of disappointment new to many on the roster. “Some things that you think won’t happy to you, happen to you,” running back Dalvin Cook said.
But the Seminoles didn’t lose on one play alone. After the game, many players admitted they largely set themselves up for failure. Between penalties and missed opportunities, Florida State looked like a team still searching for its identity midway through the year.
The ‘Noles entered Saturday as the third-most penalized team (7.2 per game) in the ACC, and they committed six penalties for 45 yards against Georgia Tech. One such miscue came at a particularly inopportune time: As the Seminoles drove towards field-goal range in the final moments, a false start pushed the offense back to the Georgia Tech 47-yard line. Quarterback Everett Golson completed a pass for nine yards to Jesus Wilson after the penalty, but had it not occurred, Aguayo might have been attempting a 51-yard field goal instead.
After the game, coach Jimbo Fisher also pointed to Florida State’s inefficiency in the red zone. Golson threw his first interception of the season when a tipped ball landed in the hands of Georgia Tech’s Jamal Golden in the third quarter. It didn’t help that Cook, a Heisman contender, was held to 82 rushing yards on 17 carries, well short of his 159.2 yards per game average entering Saturday.
For much of the game, many of the ‘Noles’ young players simply tried too hard, Fisher said. “We have to look at our mistakes, which is a bunch of them,” he said. “We left too many points on the board in the red zone. We did not finish.”
Florida State had showed warts in a few of its early season victories. It managed just 14 points in a win over Boston College on Sept. 19. An underachieving Miami squad stood toe-to-toe with the Seminoles in a 29–24 Florida State victory on Oct. 10. Some of the ‘Noles’ shakiness seemed to carry over from 2014, when the program looked little like the dominant 2013 squad that won the national title behind Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston. Yet despite a season and a half of less-than-stellar football, Florida State had avoided a loss in the regular season. That streak ended on Saturday.
The Seminoles can likely kiss their playoff hopes goodbye, but the devastating loss to Georgia Tech hardly ends their hopes for an ACC title. Florida State makes up one half of the only two seemingly elite programs (Clemson is the other) in this season’s ACC. For the first time in years, Fisher and Co. must now figure out how to bounce back from a loss—last year's defeat to Oregon in the Rose Bowl simply ended their season. The Seminoles must find a way to fix the deficiencies in a roster that is still more talented than most in the country.
Florida State doesn’t have much time to reflect on itself, either. After facing Syracuse next week, it travels to Death Valley for a do-or-die meeting on Nov. 7 with Clemson, which hammered Miami 58–0 on Saturday to remain undefeated. Fisher hopes to channel the painful reality of losing into a learning opportunity for his program.
“In football, anything can happen,” Fisher said. “As a coach, you have to go through that, and we have to learn from that. Like a win, after 24 hours, we have to get our mistakes corrected, and we move on. We can’t let one loss become two.”