Florida State’s first road test was a lot tougher than expected.
EJ Manuel threw for 242 yards and one touchdown, helping the fourth-ranked Seminoles remain unbeaten Saturday night with a 30-17 victory over South Florida.
The win avenged a 2009 loss to USF, though few gave the Bulls much of a chance this time following losses the previous two weeks to Rutgers and Ball State.
Yet the second-ever meeting between the schools — and Florida State’s first appearance in Tampa since 1979 — was more competitive than the difference on the scoreboard.
"We knew they were going to try and make their season right here and get back into it and play hard, and they did that, and our kids fought through it," Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said. "We’ve got a lot of mistakes to clean up, and that’s a good thing, but we came out with a W, and W’s are always good."
Receiver Rashad Greene got the Seminoles going with a 10-yard touchdown run early, while linebacker Christian Jones scored on a 12-yard fumble return and Penn State transfer Kevin Haplea had a 1-yard TD reception during a critical stretch in the third quarter as the Seminoles pulled away.
"We hit a lot of big plays. We just didn’t convert in the red zone," said Fisher, whose team entered averaging nearly 575 yards and 56 points per game. "If we convert in the red zone and get touchdowns instead of field goals, it’s a little different situation."
Three years after returning to his hometown of Tallahassee to lead USF (2-3) to a 10-point upset of the Seminoles in his first college start, B.J. Daniels threw for 143 yards ran for 72 yards more and two touchdowns for the Bulls.
But the game changed dramatically on a play the senior quarterback missed after being knocked woozy by a hit at the end of a 20-yard run that was wiped out by a holding penalty.
With the clock showing no time remaining in the third quarter, the officials announced the period would end with an untimed down. Freshman Matt Floyd came off the bench to replace Daniels on third-and-12 from the USF 23. The backup was sacked at the 12 by Cornelius Carradine, who forced a fumble that Jones scooped up and returned for a TD. That put the Seminoles up 30-10.
"B.J. wasn’t ready to go on the play. … And even if he had said he was ready to get back in there, I probably wouldn’t have let him at that point," USF coach Skip Holtz said. "We felt like we needed to check him out."
Daniels, who scored a 1-yard run in the third quarter, returned after the sack-fumble to lead a 73-yard scoring drive that he finished with a 3-yard TD burst but there would be no miraculous comeback.
"The defense came out and really started dominating the line of scrimmage and then got settled down," Fisher said. "We played too loose in the beginning."
Manuel completed 19-of-26 passes with no interceptions and Dustin Hopkins kicked three field goals for Florida State, which was coming off a 49-37 victory over Clemson — the Seminoles’ first win over an opponent ranked in the top 10 since 2009, the year FSU lost 17-7 to USF on the way to finishing 7-6 in coach Bobby Bowden’s final season.
Daniels accounted for 341 yards total offense in USF’s victory over the Seminoles three years ago, including 126 rushing. He’s been a virtual one-man show at times this season, but had plenty of help in keeping the Bulls close after Florida State took a 7-3 lead on Greene’s TD run on the Seminoles’ first possession of the night.
Showing what’s become a rare commitment to the ground game, the Bulls held the ball for more than 10 minutes of the opening quarter to keep Manuel and the rest of Florida State’s explosive playmakers off the field for extended stretches. Time of possession began to even out by halftime, with Hopkins kicking field goals of 26 and 43 yards — the latter following the first of USF’s three turnovers — to make it 13-3.
USF drove 62 yards following the opening kickoff to take a 3-0 lead on Maikon Bonani’s 32-yard field goal, then didn’t score again until Tashon Whitehurst blocked a punt and recovered at the Seminoles’ 8 to set up the Daniels TD run that trimmed the Bulls’ deficit to three points early in the third quarter.
"We came in thinking we could win the game. We didn’t need to block a punt to believe that," Holtz said.
Daniels connected on 17-of-33 passes and was intercepted once for the Bulls, who have dropped three straight after beginning with wins over Chattanooga and Nevada.
Chris Thompson rushed for 74 yards on 16 carries for Florida State. He also had a 70-yard run for a touchdown wiped out by a holding penalty in the third quarter. Less than four minutes later, Manuel threw his 1-yard TD pass to Haplea.
Fisher said winning by 13 on the road without playing particularly well was significant accomplishment for a team that feels it’s capable of making a run at the national championship.
"That’s what I told them. Listen, wins are big. You go into somebody else’s house who have good players, coached well, and you come out on a W. That’s a huge step coming off a big win we had last week," Fisher said. "In the past, I think we might have folded a little bit. Our kids kept believing. They kept playing hard, and you’ve got to find ways to keep winning those games when you’re not playing your A game. That’s what good football teams do."