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ATLANTA (seminoles.com) – Florida State went into Thursday’s Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl looking to put an exclamation point on a historic four-year run and springboard into the 2016 season with high hopes.
Houston, however, had other plans.
The No. 18 Cougars stunned 10th-ranked FSU by building an early lead and forcing five turnovers on the way to a 38-24 victory that left the Seminoles shaking their heads after the game.
FSU has lost back-to-back bowl games for the first time since 2002-03 and only the second time since 1981.
“Our guys played hard, were ready to play and we wanted to play,” FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said. “We just didn’t play as well, and Houston did a really nice job.”
The Seminoles (10-3) rallied from a 21-3 halftime deficit thanks to a pair of touchdown passes from quarterback Sean Maguire and a one-yard scoring plunge by Dalvin Cook.
But every time FSU threatened to tie the game, Houston (13-1) had answer.
When Maguire hit Travis Rudolph for a 65-yard TD that made it 24-17, Houston’s Greg Ward responded with a 12-play, 75-yard scoring drive.
And when Maguire connected with Jesus Wilson for 14-yard touchdown on the ensuing drive, Houston’s backup quarterback, Kyle Postma, filled in for an injured Ward and used his legs to convert a pair of third downs.
Postma’s 29-yard run on third-and-7 set up a two-yard touchdown that snuffed out FSU’s comeback bid.
“They did exactly what we thought they would do as far as playing fast and the plays that they run,” senior safety Lamarcus Brutus said. “They made plays just like we made plays.”
The Seminoles just didn’t make many early in the game.
Maguire started hot, completing five of his first seven passes for 133 yards before he injured his left leg while rolling out for a pass in the red zone.
He later returned to the game, but missed his next five throws while visibly favoring his leg. The fourth-year junior eventually hit his stride and finished with 392 yards and two TDs, but he also threw four interceptions.
“(The ankle) didn’t really affect too much,” Maguire said after the game. “They did a pretty good job taping it up. It limited some stuff.”
But while Maguire and receiver Travis Rudolph had big days – Rudolph had seven catches for 201 yards, a new FSU bowl record – the Seminoles’ offense never got much help from its running game.
Lined up against Houston’s 13th-ranked rush defense, star sophomore Dalvin Cook rarely found any room to run and finished with just 33 yards on 18 carries, his lowest output of the season.
He also lost a fumble for the first time since last season’s Rose Bowl.
“They stacked the box,” Cook said. “More than we could block.”
With the Seminoles unable to muster much on the ground, the Cougars brought blitz after blitz, got three sacks and forced several more errant throws.
“I wish we could have got the running game going more, had more balance,” Fisher said. “I think that would have really helped.”
FSU’s defense, meanwhile, did a nice job keeping Ward and Co. corralled for much of the game, but the Cougars’ blistering pace, combined with a heavy time of possession advantage, eventually took its toll.
Although the two teams finished close in total yardage (448 for UH, 413 for FSU) Houston ran 99 plays to FSU’s 71 and controlled the ball for 34:27.
And the Cougars converted 13 of 23 on third down, compared to just 6 of 15 from FSU.
“I think, offensively, our turnovers had a lot do to with it,” Fisher said. “We set them up (with good) field position, too,” Fisher said. “(Ward) is a dynamic guy.”
Between a heartbreaking loss at Georgia Tech earlier this year and today’s outcome, Atlanta has been rather unkind to the Seminoles in 2015.
The good news, if any: FSU isn’t scheduled to visit Georgia’s capital city in 2016.
But that doesn’t mean the Seminoles aren’t planning a return trip. The Peach Bowl will host a College Football Playoff semifinal next season, and FSU is hoping to get back in the field after a one-year hiatus.
With every offensive starter due to return and a host of promising, young defensive talent waiting in the wings, the Seminoles still believe they have reason for optimism.
“It would have been great if we would have gotten the win, but I’m very excited,” Cook said. “I’m very confident in the group coming back. We’re going to look at this loss as motivation, go and get ready for spring ball.”