LOUISVILLE, Ky. — If trailing Auburn by 18 last season in the BCS Championship game didn’t shake Florida State, a three-touchdown first-half deficit to Louisville surely wasn’t going to, either.
Thanks to another remarkable comeback by the Seminoles and quarterback Jameis Winston, their hopes of competing for a second straight national championship remain intact.
Winston threw three touchdown passes to offset a three-interception start, and Dalvin Cook had two long scoring runs to help second-ranked Florida State rally for a 42-31 victory over Louisville on Thursday night.
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"That was another heck of a football game. Fun to watch, wasn’t it?" Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher said.
Big rallies aren’t uncommon for Florida State, which trailed Auburn 21-3 in the title game before winning 34-31 in a thriller. The Seminoles also overcame a 24-7 deficit at North Carolina State in September before going on to a 56-41 win.
"We’ve been there before," the quarterback said after rallying his team despite a twisted right ankle that required treatment on the sideline during the game. He said the pain was temporary.
"Being down is nothing when you’ve got heart and you persevere. Personally, we play better when we’re down, honestly.
More important for the Seminoles was maintaining their national championship hopes on a night that Louisville (6-3, 4-3, No. 25 CFP) nearly took them away twice.
The presence of Muhammad Ali was fitting in a game that the Cardinals initially dominated with a smashmouth approach that provided a 21-point first-half lead and knocked the Seminoles on the ropes. Michael Dyer had TD runs of 4 and 12 yards and Gerald Christian caught an 11-yard scoring pass from Will Gardner.
Florida State began its comeback just before halftime when Winston, shaking off two interceptions that Louisville turned into 14 points, led the Seminoles 78 yards on a drive that ended weird touchdown when Nick O’Leary recovered Karlos Williams’ fumble in the end zone.
The intermission gave Winston and Florida State time to regroup, though not before his third interception and second by Louisville safety Gerod Holliman. Ironically, Winston’s biggest play came after the pickoff as he came up and stripped Holliman of the ball, which Travis Rudolph recovered at the Florida State 40.
"I had to do something," Winston said. "I’ve got to make some type of play. When I’m throwing picks I’ve got to try and get me some turnovers myself."
The Seminoles turned it over on downs but Winston found Rudolph wide open down the middle between two defenders for a 68-yard TD strike that cut it to 24-14 with 9:51 left in the quarter.
Florida State’s swagger was back, and Cook turned it into a 40-yard touchdown run nearly 4 minutes later to bring the Seminoles within a field goal.
Winston’s TD pass to Lane with 12:48 left provided Florida State’s first lead and the game became a slugfest from there as Dyer answered for Louisville with a 1-yard TD run with 9:20 left. The Seminoles took charge from there with Cook’s TD run and Stevenson’s pass from Winston.
"It’s a tough loss that hurts a lot," Louisville coach Bobby Petrino said. "We got ahead of them and had opportunities. You’ve got to give Florida State credit when they were able to make plays when the pressure was on."
Louisville’s loss spoiled a career night for wide receiver DeVante Parker, who caught eight passes for 214 yards.
Dyer was destined to be a hero as well with 28 carries for 134 yards and three touchdowns, while Gardner completed 20 of 38 passes for 330 passes.
In the end the Cardinals were overshadowed by Florida State and Winston, whose poise after a bad start kept the Seminoles in the running for their second straight national title.
But it took overcoming a Louisville team that wasn’t fazed by the Seminoles’ standing, quarterback or anything else for that matter.
Louisville charged the crowd of 55,414 on the game’s first play as Gardner hit a wide-open Parker down the middle for 71 yards to the Florida State 4. Three plays gained 6 more yards but the Cardinals eventually turned it over on downs as Gardner’s fourth-and-goal pass sailed past Gerald Christian, among several receivers well covered by the Seminoles.
The Cardinals’ nation-leading defense then went about shutting down Florida State and Winston. Louisville’s pressure and coverage frustrated the Seminoles, but Winston found a way to get everybody on the same page and keep his team in the national title picture.
Louisville was left to wonder how it lost a big lead.
"It’s very disappointing," cornerback Charles Gaines said. "Jameis Winston is an outstanding quarterback. He made a lot of checks and had us guessing."