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TAMPA, Fla. - Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher held up the cinder block wall inside Raymond James Stadium and rattled off miscue after miscue that could have made for a more tense evening.
A blocked punt. Multiple missed assignments. Goal-to-go issues on offense. A late fumble.
And with all of that squeezed into its first road game of the year, the No. 4 Seminoles absorbed the untidiness with sound second-half defense and dismissed South Florida 30-17 in front of a split crowd of 69,383 on Saturday night.
"It was the kind of game we thought it was going to be," Fisher said. "Our kids played hard, we competed well, made enough mistakes to not put that (game) away. Had some critical issues in the game, but it was a hard-fought game and we made plays when we had to."
Hitting the road following the school's first-ever four-game homestand to open a season, the Seminoles (5-0) held the lead for the final 53:57. But FSU couldn't construct a lead larger than 10 until a Dustin Hopkins 23-yard field goal made it 23-10 with 34 seconds left in the third quarter. FSU put it away on the final play of the third quarter with its second-half calling card - defense - as defensive end Tank Carradine sacked USF backup quarterback Matt Floyd and forced a fumble that was scooped up by Christian Jones for a 12-yard score to stretch it to a breathable 30-10 edge.
But even in double-digit victory there were sloppy missteps along the way. In the first quarter, USF (2-3) mustered 144 yards of total offense in 10:28 of possession time, limiting the Seminoles to just nine plays. The Seminoles also settled for a pair of field goals after gaining first-and-goal on two drives.
"It wasn't pretty, we had some ups and downs but a win is a win, that's how we look at it," FSU fullback Lonnie Pryor said. Pryor was a microcosm of the FSU performance on this night pairing a career-long run of 44 yards in the first quarter with his first career fumble as the Seminoles tried to burn out the clock late in the fourth.
"They came out here and played a tough game, it was our first road game and it wasn't going to be easy," he said.
After allowing a field goal on the game's opening drive, FSU got a 60-yard kickoff return from Karlos Williams and capped a five-play, 37-yard scoring drive with a Rashad Greene 10-yard run to take the lead for good at 7-3.
After the sluggish first quarter, the defense clamped down, allowing USF a mere 40 total yards and one first down in the second and third quarters combined. In that span, Florida State punched the gas, stretching its lead to 20 on three field goals, a Kevin Haplea 1-yard touchdown catch and the Jones' defensive score.
"We just had to calm down," safety Lamarcus Joyner.
On the heels of a career game against Clemson last week, FSU quarterback EJ Manuel was efficient, going 19 of 26 for 242 yards and a touchdown. Chris Thompson led the Seminole ground attack with 74 yards while Greene paced the receivers with two catches for 71 yards. When USF cut it to 13-10 early in the second half, the FSU offense combined to march 121 yards on two consecutive third-quarter drives to get the lead out to 23-10.
All told, the FSU offense totaled 425 yards against USF's 268.
"The game is not going to go how you want it to exactly so when we had opportunities with the ball we wanted to go out and score for our defense," Manuel said. "Our defense made a lot of stops and that's how we won the game."
It wasn't pretty, but it was still a test passed, a hard-fought victory away from the comforts of home.
"That's the thing that I'm happy about. As crazy (as it sounds), I told them, wins are big and when you go into somebody else's house who have good players and are coached well and you come out on a 'W,' that's still a huge step," said Fisher whose team moves to 5-0 for the first time since 2005 and has now gone 1,034 days without a loss to an in-state foe.
"In the past I think we might have folded a little bit, but our kids kept believing and kept playing hard and you've got to find ways to win games that you're not playing your 'A' game and that's what good football teams do," he said.