Early look at Florida State

While the stadium shook and the players hoped, there was also a palpable sense of fear when Florida State kicker Dustin Hopkins lined up for a straight-ahead 40-yard field goal to win Saturday's game.

After all, Florida State fans know the history.

They know what happens when Seminoles kickers try to win a game. History reared an ugly repeat, of course, all the ghosts and goblins coming back as reminders, after Hopkins' attempt sailed wide right with seven seconds remaining.

It resulted in another hard-to-fathom 37-35 loss against North Carolina that shook up the ACC Atlantic Division race again.

The Seminoles (6-3, 4-2) started the game in control of their destiny, after North Carolina State stumbled against Clemson. Now, the Seminoles will host Clemson on Saturday for another chance to stay alive and salvage a once-promising season.

"Hopefully, it will bring us together," Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said. "We talk about these things all the time. That's the thing about life and (foot)ball. You never know what it's gonna give you. There's ups, there's downs, and you can't quit believing in yourself, believing in your teammates."

Fisher faces the most difficult challenge of his rookie year as head coach. The Seminoles, who once seemed on course for a spot in the ACC title game and maybe a top-10 ranking, lost back-to-back ACC games in the final minute to teams that have struggled all season.

Fisher and his staff must somehow get players to regain confidence, hope and spirit to finish the final three games.

"The kicker will make it next time. We won't run into each other next time," Fisher said. "I still believe we're heading in the right direction. I love this team. I like their attitude. I like their competitive spirit. We've just got to learn to eliminate the mistakes and get a little bit better at times."

But the Seminoles have wasted a chance at a breakthrough season. As their fans know, this is not a great year in the ACC, and none of the teams has looked superior. But against Florida State, the last two opponents have been world-beaters. North Carolina passed for a school-record 439 yards, one week after N.C. State quarterback Russell Wilson passed and ran the Seminoles silly.


Dustin Hopkins' miss from 40-yards Saturday night against North Carolina out gave the Tigers new life in the ACC's Atlantic Division. (Getty Images)
"It's very difficult when you see how close the margin is," linebacker Vince Williams said. "When you're losing games by one point or four points, you understand that there were a lot of plays within that game that could have affected it.

"I think it will bring us together. We'll be more united and more focused and hopefully have a lot better execution against Clemson."

To their credit, Florida State players, led by quarterback Christian Ponder, rushed to the defense of Hopkins, who was crestfallen. Hopkins had been one of the nation's top placekickers this season. He's among the finalists for the Lou Groza Award. However, he missed two field goals under pressure against North Carolina, headlined by the 40-yarder that rekindled so many bad memories of similar misses by Florida State kickers in games against Miami.

"It should never have come to down to that last play," Ponder said.

But it did.

MONDAY MORNING NOTES: FSU's pass defense gave up its most yards (439) since Florida's Danny Wuerffel shredded the Seminoles for 443 yards in a Gators' win in 1995. North Carolina quarterback T.J. Yates set a school passing record in the process.

--Seminoles DE Brandon Jenkins had his ninth and 10th sacks of the season. He leads Florida State in that category.

--The Seminoles lost to North Carolina for the first time in Tallahassee. Only Maryland, Virginia and Duke remain as winless ACC teams in Doak Campbell Stadium.

--For the first time this season, the Seminoles employed a no-huddle offense. It led to Florida State's best passing stats of the year.

"It's something we worked on all week," QB Christian Ponder said. "I think after that last drive against N.C. State, we thought it would be a good idea to put in. We implemented it and executed it pretty well. There are still a lot of things we got to fix."

--Florida State's bad habit of slow starts continued. For the third consecutive game, the Seminoles gave up points on the opponent's first possession. Against North Carolina, the opening kickoff from Dustin Hopkins went out of bounds, giving North Carolina the ball at its 40. In four plays, the Tar Heels took a 7-0 lead, immediately taking the crowd out of the game and putting some doubt on the Seminoles' sideline. That set a tone for the rest of the game.


Christian Ponder had his best game, completing 24 of 34 passes for a season-high 264 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions and a couple of sizeable gains on scramble runs. (Getty Images)
GAME BALL GOES TO: QB Christian Ponder -- He had his best game, completing 24 of 34 passes for a season-high 264 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions and a couple of sizeable gains on scramble runs. He also looked in control during the last-minute drive to get into field-goal position. After committing six turnovers the past two games, Ponder was error-free.

KEEP AN EYE ON: WR Willie Haulstead -- He's dropped some passes at critical times this season, but he was spectacular against North Carolina, catching a career-high 10 throws for 154 yards and one touchdown. It was easily the best performance by a Florida State wide receiver this season.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "Of course, it's so disappointing. I've got to bounce back. We've all got to bounce back from the loss and come back next week and beat a really good Clemson team. ... It was an awesome opportunity, and I still feel the same way. I hope it comes up again. I hope it comes up three more times." -- Florida State PK Dustin Hopkins, after missing the game-deciding field goal in loss to North Carolina.

LOOKING GOOD: Even with a third-quarter sleep-walk, the Seminoles' offense was efficient enough to win the game. Florida State continually answered North Carolina's offense in the first half did not commit a turnover and got into position for a game-winning kick in the final seconds that should have been converted. When you score 35 points in a game, you should win most of the time, especially against a team like North Carolina, which has struggled all season.

STILL NEEDS WORK: The Seminoles' defense has gone AWOL. Florida State yielded a shocking 439 passing yards to North Carolina. The Seminoles made North Carolina quarterback T.J. Yates look better than Brett Favre. Florida State had no answer for the Tar Heels' passing attack, and it really burned the Seminoles when North Carolina methodically drove downfield (72 yards on 12 plays) for the go-ahead points with 55 seconds remaining. It reinforced that new defensive coordinator Mark Stoops, despite some success in the middle part of the season, has a lot of challenges ahead to get this defense better.

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