TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — The day could not have gone any better for Florida State.
The 22nd-ranked Seminoles put the brakes on a six-year losing streak against archrival Florida with a 31-7 victory Saturday and moments afterward slipped into next week’s Atlantic Coast Conference championship game with a big boost from Maryland.
The Terrapins beat North Carolina State 38-31 to keep the Wolfpack from clinching the ACC’s Atlantic division.
"This is just a topping to a great day for us," first-year Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said. "What a perfect day for Florida State football."
Fisher’s players were already celebrating what turned out to be a relatively easy win over the Gators and the locker room got even noisier when the verdict came in from College Park, Md.
"To find out after beating Florida that you’re going to the ACC championship game, that’s pretty special," Florida State quarterback Christian Ponder said.
Ponder had already finished his work, throwing for 221 yards and three touchdowns in his final game at home, helping Fisher finish the regular season 9-3. Ponder connected with Rodney Smith (39 yards), Taiwan Easterling (15) and Willie Haulstead (29) on TD passes.
In his first year as a head coach at any level, Fisher and the Seminoles advanced to the ACC title game for the second time and first since 2005, when they upset Virginia Tech. The ‘Noles will play the Hokies again with the winner slated for the Orange Bowl.
Saturday’s resounding victory over Florida also gave the 45-year-old Fisher a sweep of in-state rivals. The Seminoles hammered Miami 45-17 last month.
"We’re becoming a factor again in this league and a factor again in this state." Fisher said. "That makes us relevant."
The Seminoles (6-2 ACC) put the game away with a 21-point second quarter, getting three touchdowns in just over nine minutes to take a 24-7 halftime lead.
Florida (7-5, 4-4 Southeastern Conference) capped its worst regular season under Urban Meyer with its first loss to FSU since Meyer took over in Gainesville in 2005.
"Obviously we’re down," Meyer conceded. "I didn’t believe we’d be that far down, but we are."
Meyer’s dominance against Florida State was one of the major reasons Bobby Bowden was forced out last season as coach and Fisher promoted from offensive coordinator/coach-in-waiting.
The Gators were awful Saturday, committing four turnovers and scoring only on their opening drive. John Brantley’s 21-yard touchdown to Robert Clark was set up by Andre DuBose’s 62-yard kickoff return.
Florida had won the last three in the series by an average of 30 points. The Seminoles’ 24-point winning margin was its largest over Florida since a 52-17 victory in 1988.
Florida State’s 9-3 finish is its best since 2003, the last time the Seminoles beat the Gators.
But things had mostly gone downhill since.
Fisher was elevated to the head coach two days after last year’s 37-10 loss in Gainesville, sending the 80-year-old Bowden into retirement at least a year before he wanted.
And while there was no Bowden on Florida State’s sideline Saturday, there was also no Tim Tebow for Florida. Tebow had put up prolific performances against Florida State but his successors — all three of them — were ineffective with Brantley managing to throw for 52 of Florida’s paltry 64 passing yards.
Florida hadn’t lost five games in a season since 2004, former coach Ron Zook’s last at the school and it was the first time in 10 years as a head coach that Urban Meyer has seen one of his teams lose five times. It was also the second worst beating a Florida team has suffered under Meyer, surpassed only by a 31-6 loss to Alabama earlier this year.
Florida was unable to overcome its mistakes and couldn’t get its offense untracked, totaling just 276 yards with Jordan Reed’s 74 yards on 13 carries leading the way.
The Gators drove deep into Seminoles territory just before half, but the drive ended with 55 seconds left when Florida State’s Mike Harris cut in front of the intended receiver for an interception at the 7.
Nothing worked for the Gators, who had three turnovers in the first half and were stopped short on a fake punt.
Meyer gambled on fourth-and-5 from his own 36 early in the second quarter when Chas Henry was tackled a yard short of a first down.
"We didn’t coach smart," Meyer said.
Ponder lofted a 39-yard touchdown pass to Smith on play after the unsuccessful fake punt to give Florida State a 17-7 lead, just 81 seconds after Lonnie Pryor’s 9-yard touchdown run gave the Seminoles the lead at 10-7. Dustin Hopkins’ 38-yard field goal gave Florida State an early 3-0 lead.