The Seminoles (6-2, 4-1) now have to win conference games against North Carolina on Saturday, then Clemson and Maryland, plus hope the Wolfpack stumble in order to claim the Atlantic Division title. The Wolfpack own the tiebreaker with the head-to-head win, which is why the game was so crucial for both teams.
Sensing his team was emotionally deflated from the loss, Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher opted to give his players the entire weekend off and will resume practice Monday to prepare for the Tar Heels.
"Don't let N.C. State beat you twice," he said. "It's disappointing. We got to fix these problems. We've got to fix the sloppiness. We have to look at ourselves, and we've got to get better."
With the ball in his hand and a chance to be cap off his best game of the season with a last-minute touchdown, Florida State quarterback Christian Ponder inexplicably fumbled on a play-action pass from the Wolfpack 4-yard line. It happened when tailback Ty Jones brushed next to him on the play fake. An N.C. State lineman alertly pounced on it at the 9.
"It was just a play-action and I extended the ball too far," Ponder said later. "I was trying to keep my eyes downfield and just hit the hip of the tailback. And I fumbled it, so it's my fault ... I mean, it was good that we executed all the way down there, but I've got to finish. It goes all on me. We had the game won, and I didn't finish ... it's not a good feeling."
The challenge for Fisher and the Seminoles is making sure Ponder can regain confidence and good vibes before Saturday's game against North Carolina. For the most part against N.C. State, he looked as sharp as he had all season. He showed little effect of the elbow injury on his throwing arm. He was charged with a previous fumble on a questionable call in the third quarter as his arm came forward on a pass attempt. N.C. State recovered that fumble, too, and quickly scored the tying touchdown.
The ending was reminiscent of other times in recent years when Florida State has lost with a turnover, a dropped pass or a missed kick in the final minute with a chance to win.
"We've got to keep the right attitude," Ponder said. "For me personally, it's going to be tough to swallow, but as a leader, I've got to do it. And I will."
--Seven of the past 10 meetings between Florida State and North Carolina State have now been decided by a touchdown or less. The Seminoles are 5-5 in the last 10 seasons against N.C. State.
--Former Wolfpack head coach Chuck Amato, who spent the past three years back at Florida State as an assistant, attended the game and wore a shirt that reflected both team's colors. Amato, who graduated from N.C. State and was one of the school's top defensive players, is battling cancer.
--QB Christian Ponder earned an $18,000 postgraduate scholarship as part of the 52nd National Football Foundation & College Hall of Fame national scholar-athlete class. Ponder is one 16 players honored from a pool of 121 semifinalists from all NCAA divisions and the NAIA.
GAME BALL GOES TO: LB Kendall Smith -- He led the Seminoles' defensive effort with a season-high 15 tackles, including nine solo stops and one fumble recovery.
KEEP AN EYE ON: TB Ty Jones -- Overshadowed at times behind starter Jermaine Thomas and backup Chris Thompson, Jones showed his potential against the Wolfpack by gaining 108 yards on 10 carries, scoring one touchdown and losing only 1 yard. Though he's a junior, the burly Jones (5-foot-10, 210 pounds) has played sparingly the past two seasons and is still splitting duties in a crowded backfield, but he can be a quality option in the future.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We had it in hand. And we've been rolling and playing really well ... (It was the) first time in a while that we've kind of controlled our own destiny in the ACC and the big opponent was going to be N.C. State, and we just let it slip through our fingers." -- QB Christian Ponder.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
LOOKING GOOD: The Seminoles receiver corps, minus one glaring dropped pass by Willie Haulstead, had a solid game. Five receivers caught passes, along with two tailbacks, and the group continued to get separation from N.C. State's defensive backs. Two receivers were open on QB Christian Ponder's botched play when he coughed up the ball and the game in the final seconds.
STILL NEEDS WORK: Coaching. This was not exactly the finest hour for head coach Jimbo Fisher and defensive coordinator Mark Stoops. They knew this game would feature an energized crowd, a fired-up opponent and a chance to seize control in the ACC. They also knew that N.C. State quarterback Russell Wilson was the only player on the field who could beat them. And they let him do it, not with his passing, but his running. Stoops did not have his players ready in the second half when N.C. State got back in the game. Fisher was culpable on the final series when he knew how risky a play-action pass could be near the goal line, instead of just running the ball into the end zone against a tired defense.
--The Seminoles did not sustain any serious injuries, or at least none were reported by team staff.
--QB Christian Ponder (elbow) wore a protective sleeve during the game for his injury and had his elbow in a bag of ice after the game, but said it did not bother him during the game. He seemed to have more zip on the ball than in previous games.
--DE Everette Dawkins (thumb) played during the game and had five tackles.