TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - If there was ever a perfect storm in Florida State's favor this was it.
Just minutes after ending a six-game losing streak to Florida in spectacular fashion with a 31-7 dismantling of their rivals on Saturday night in front of a sold-out crowd of 82,324 on Senior Day, Maryland held on for a 38-31 upset of NC State, which gives the No. 21-ranked Seminoles sole possession of the ACC's Atlantic title and places them in next Saturday's ACC title game in Charlotte, N.C., for the first time since 2005. They will face Virginia Tech, which has won 10 in a row after an 0-2 start, for a spot in the Orange Bowl.
The 'Noles (9-3) can also call themselves state champs for the first time in over a decade. With a convincing win over Miami (45-17 on Oct. 9), who fell to South Florida 23-20 earlier in the day, earlier this year, this makes the first time the 'Noles have beaten both of their in-state rivals in the same season since 1999.
"This is really the greatest day of my life so far," said FSU linebacker Nigel Bradham, who tied for the team lead with five solo tackles. "My dream is to beat the Gators and go the ACC (title game) and that's why I came here. Our goals are being accomplished. Now we just have to go up there and win it."
After Florida (7-5) took a 7-3 lead early in the first quarter on John Brantley's 20-yard touchdown pass to Robert Clark, FSU dominated the rest of the way, scoring 28 unanswered points, 21 of which came in the second quarter to take a 24-7 lead at the half. That was the first time the Seminoles had led the Gators at the half since 2003 when they got their last win in the series.
Quarterback Christian Ponder, one of eight scholarship seniors on the roster, fired three touchdown passes to three different receivers and played his most efficient game of the year in the final home game of his career. Ponder was 16-of-24 for 221 yards with no interceptions. All three of his touchdown passes were 15 yards or longer.
"The guy is as good as I've had," said Fisher of Ponder, who has played with multiple injuries this year and throughout his career. "When people function around him he's as good as he is in this country. He's been banged and bruised and has played with toughness. The guy is the ultimate competitor. I wish I could coach him for a thousand years."
Florida's three-quarterback system worked miserably as the Gators were held to just 64 yards passing and turned the ball over four times (three fumbles, one interception), three of which occurred in the first half.
"We are just really ineffective in certain areas, really, really ineffective," Florida coach Urban Meyer, who is now 5-1 against the Seminoles. "So if that's because of the three quarterbacks we will blow that thing completely out of the water."
With FSU up 24-7, Florida was threatening to score and grab a little momentum back leading into the half as their offense moved down to the FSU 20-yard line with 52 seconds remaining. But, that's when corner Mike Harris read Brantley's eyes, left his man and nabbed his third pick of the year.
But, the biggest turning point came on a failed fake punt by Florida - the first of the Urban Meyer era - in the second quarter with FSU up 10-7. Facing a 4th-and-5 from its own 36-yard line, the Gators' punt team rushed out onto the field. A quick snap went directly to punter Chas Henry, but he was stopped 1-yard short of the first down by a gang of tacklers led by senior Ochuko Jenije.
The Gators had converted 8-of-8 fake punts since Meyer was hired in 2005.
"We knew all week they were going to do fakes just because of the coach they have over there," Jenije said. "I guess it's just football players' instincts. We could feel something was up when we saw the punter moseying up back there."
On the very next play, Ponder floated up a pass down the left sideline to a wide-open Rodney Smith, who raced untouched into the end zone for a 39-yard touchdown catch that put the 'Noles up 24-7.
Ponder's other TD throws went to Taiwan Easterling (15 yards) and Willie Haulstead (29 yards). Their other touchdown came on a 9-yard run by Lonnie Pryor.
Dustin Hopkins made a 38-yard field goal on FSU's first drive to give them a 3-0 lead.
Punter Shawn Powell had three punts downed within Florida's 10-yard line.
Hopkins' field goal gave FSU the lead first for the first time in their last six games.
FSU corner Xavier Rhodes had two fumble recoveries. The fumbles were forced by safety Nick Moody and corner Greg Reid.
FSU defensive end Brandon Jenkins had two sacks and now has 13 for the year.
FSU running back Ty Jones left the game in the second quarter with an ankle injury and did not return. Starting running back Jermaine Thomas (sprained knee) sat out his second straight game.
This was the first sell out at Doak Campbell since FSU's 38-34 loss to Miami on Sept. 7 of last season.
FSU's nine wins are the third-most for a first-year coach in the ACC. Fisher needs one more win to tie Maryland's Ralph Friedgen (2001) in second place and two to tie former Boston College coach Jeff Jagodzinski (2007).