Florida State was able to start and build drives on Saturday. The problem, at least early on, was finishing those drives and putting points on the board.
Penalties and third-down failures led to drives stalling in North Carolina territory. And then Ricky Aguayo missed three field-goal attempts. Before FSU could recover, UNC led 21-0 midway through the second quarter.
Deondre Francois had been in this spot before, down 22 points in the season opener against Ole Miss. The redshirt freshman had played his best football in the second half against the Rebels, helping FSU rally for a 45-34 win.
Francois nearly did it again on Saturday, this time from 21 points behind. He completed 20 of 32 passes for 372 yards and guided FSU on four touchdown drives in the second half before the Seminoles’ comeback fell short. Nick Weiler’s 54-yard field-goal attempt as time expired gave No. 23 UNC a 37-35 win over No. 12 FSU.
FSU drove into UNC’s end of the field on all five first-half drives. But three missed field-goal attempts and a punt were all FSU had to show for it before the Seminoles finally generated a touchdown with 4:47 left in the second quarter.
Francois’ performance was again very composed in the face of a difficult deficit.
“We just had the motto of keep chopping,” Francois said. “We just take it one play at a time. We’ve been in this situation before. We just had to limit the mistakes, the penalties and we were able to come back.”
After halftime, Francois was 12 of 18 for 214 yards and guided FSU on four long touchdown drives. FSU put together consecutive touchdown drives of 66, 76 and 75 yards to tie the game at 28.
And then FSU got the ball with 2:08 left in the game and 75 yards to go. Francois ran the two-minute drill well, connecting with Dalvin Cook on a 41-yard pass play as the Seminoles crossed midfield and moved into the red zone. Francois then put FSU ahead 35-34 with a 2-yard sprint up the middle where he broke a tackle and then dove into the end zone.
“Whatever play coach (Jimbo) Fisher called, he’s going to get it done,” Cook said. “The energy just came in the huddle from him. That’s the type of guy he is. … He’s a warrior. I will go to war with him any day.”
FSU’s season began with playoff aspirations. Those are now clearly dashed on the first weekend of October with two losses in the Seminoles’ first ACC games.
The defeats left FSU demoralized but not willing to acknowledge that the season is a failure. Francois and players think there is plenty to fight for, especially a state title if FSU can build on its win over South Florida and win at Miami next week and then beat Florida at the end of the regular season.
But more than anything, FSU has learned a valuable lesson: falling behind in the first half makes life incredibly difficult. Even with a playmaker like Cook and a rising talent in Francois.
“We understand things like this can’t happen,” Francois said. “We understand that we’ve lost two games now. We wouldn’t have lost this game if it weren’t for the mistakes that we had in the first half.”