Florida State was again far from perfect.
And still ended up with another flawless record.
Seemingly playing with fire game after game, the Seminoles rallied for a 24-19 victory over rival Florida in Will Muschamp’s final game as the Gators’ coach.
Jameis Winston played like a turnover machine before leading the defending national champions to their 28th straight victory and consecutive undefeated regular seasons for the first time in school history. Florida State is the 16th team to accomplish the feat since 1950.
“I made a few mistakes that hurt us, but it’s a family here,” Winston said. “Defense had my back, offensive had my back, offensive line did a great job and, wow, Dalvin Cook did it again.”
Cook ran for a career-high 144 yards for the Seminoles, who are ranked No. 3 in the College Football Playoff and No. 1 in the Associated Press poll. They will face Georgia Tech in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game Saturday.
“First time in school history we ever went back-to-back undefeated regular seasons,” Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said. “With all the great teams (that have been here), that shows how hard that is to do. … That just doesn’t happen. It’s a true testament to our players and assistant coaches, what they’ve done.
“But, that’s not our ultimate accomplishment and we’ve got a lot more to play for.”
Winston threw a career-high four interceptions, including three in the first quarter. He finished 12 of 24 for 125 yards and two touchdowns. Tight end Nick O’Leary had two second-quarter touchdown catches to give Florida State a 21-9 lead.
“He goes out there and something good happens, he lets it go,” O’Leary said. “Something bad happens, he lets it go. Just does everything the same and moves on and keeps playing his best.”
The Gators (6-5) jumped out to a 9-0 lead, but the offense struggled. Treon Harris threw for 169 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions. Florida’s Austin Hardin missed two second-half field goals that would have given the Gators the lead. Both field goal attempts came after Florida State miscues.
Winston threw his fourth interception with 2:36 left in the third quarter when Brian Poole tipped the ball to himself on a throw intended for Travis Rudolph. Hardin missed the 52-yarder to the right five plays later.
“After my third pick I told them I’m going to protect the ball,” Winston said. “It’s crazy to throw three picks in the first quarter. I was like, wow. But I’ve got to keep the intensity up. I can’t let guys see me struggling. … My job as a quarterback is to lead the guys. Sometimes I don’t lead by example, but I still lead mentally.”
Fisher called an odd fake punt that had defensive end Mario Edwards Jr. being stopped short on a rush to give Florida the ball with 11:48 left in the fourth quarter. Hardin missed a 42-yarder five plays later.
Muschamp walked off the field for the final time as Florida coach arm in arm with his wife.
“We had our opportunities to get it done and we didn’t get it done,” Muschamp said. “It falls on my shoulders and that’s why they’re looking for a new coach. I’m just a guy that did it the right way. I’ll hold my head up. We just didn’t win enough game.”
The Seminoles were held to a season-low 306 offensive yards and a season-low 125 passing yards. Winston’s 125 passing yards was a career low.
Cook shouldered the offensive load as Winston struggled. The former Florida commitment rolled up his career-high 144 yards on 24 carries. Receiver Rashad Greene had three receptions to tie Ron Sellers’ 1968 single-season record of 86 catches.
The Florida State defense ripped the momentum back from Florida late in the first quarter. Tight end Tevin Westbrook dropped a pass that deflected to linebacker Terrance Smith, who found a convoy of blockers and returned it 94 yards for a touchdown. That was the first points of a 24-10 Florida State run.
“All I was thinking was just go get those points,” Smith said. “We needed that play, we needed that momentum swing.
Westbrook has been in the spotlight before for a dropped pass. He missed out on a would-be touchdown against LSU that would have given the Gators a lead.
“He’s had some opportunities to make some catches,” Muschamp said. “In that situation, catch the ball. That’s really the message: Catch the ball. You can argue about it’s thrown in traffic or this, that and the other. We put you on scholarship at Florida. Catch it.”
Republished with permission of the Associated Press.