The first time Florida State touched the ball on Saturday, Keyshawn Helton tripped on a kickoff return.
He wasn’t touched. The Seminoles also committed two penalties on the play for good measure. As far as starts go, that was perfectly symbolic of Florida State’s 48-27 loss to N.C. State.
It’s hard to reconcile just how far Florida State (4-5, 2-5 ACC) has fallen. In 2014, the Seminoles came into Carter-Finley Stadium as the defending national champions and the No. 1 team in the country.
That team, with pros up and down the depth chart, beat N.C. State 56-41. In 2013, it was even more lopsided in a 49-17 FSU rout in Tallahassee, Fla.
With Saturday’s win, N.C. State has won two in a row over the Seminoles, who have been in the ACC for 27 years. FSU has had a losing record in ACC play only three times: 2006, 2017 and now 2018.
“They’re not top-5 team in the country but they still have good players,” N.C. State center Garrett Bradbury said. “It’s still Florida State coming into town. I think that showed in how we played and how the fans responded after we dropped two.”
N.C. State did put together its best game of the season, even if the pass defense was still shaky at times.
FSU, from its championship high, has undoubtedly come back to N.C. State but N.C. State has also taken steps up.
The Wolfpack went 3-9 in 2013, Dave Doeren’s first season, and then 7-6 in 2014. They were outclassed by those FSU teams. That wasn’t the case on Saturday, it was actually the opposite (despite what the recruiting rankings say).
It has been a climb for N.C. State. It didn’t have a winning ACC season, under Doeren, until 2017. Now it is trying to back that 6-2 mark up with another one this season.
“That’s fun to think about, just coming from where we were five years ago and to where we are now,” Bradbury said. “It’s exciting for where we are now and where we are going.”
With the ACC title out of reach, N.C. State (6-2, 3-2) is trying to reach double-digit wins (for only the second time in school history) and to go unbeaten at home for the first time since 1986 (when Dick Sheridan’s first team went 6-0-1).
Those used to be routine marks for the Seminoles, who went unbeaten at home for three straight years from 2013 to ‘15 and have had five double-digit wins this decade.
But the transition from Jimbo Fisher, who left for Texas A&M after eight seasons, to Willie Taggart has been bumpy.
Florida State’s 36-year bowl streak is in serious jeopardy with Saturday’s loss and with Notre Dame, Boston College and Florida still to go.
Taggart, who built South Florida into a power before taking the Oregon job last year, has had to dig out of a hole with his own players after his remarks after last week’s 59-10 home loss to Clemson.
Taggart, in an unusual move, said in the Clemson post-game he thought some of his players had quit in the loss to the Tigers. In an effort to make up for that missed step, Taggart was singing a different tune after the N.C. State loss.
“I love this football team,” Taggart said. “I love our guys. They’re trying to do the things we’re asking them to do.”
FSU showed some more resiliency on against the Wolfpack but still made many of the same mistakes that have dropped them to 2-5 in the league.
The Seminoles were penalized 16 times for 121 yards. FSU has always been one of the most penalized teams in college football but it has had the talent to overcome the mental mistakes. That’s not the case anymore.
FSU also used to be untouchable in the ACC. The Noles racked up wins of 62-3, 77-17 and 51-17 over the Wolfpack in their first five years in the league.
Twenty years ago, N.C. State pulled off one of the biggest upsets in school history when Torry Holt led the Wolfpack to a 24-7 win over No. 2 FSU.
The goalposts were dragged down and across Hillsborough Street after that historic win. After Saturday, the goalposts were fine. N.C. State was fine. It was just another win in the books.
It’s crazy how much can change in 20 years, nevermind five. For Florida State, the difference must feel like an eternity.