RALEIGH, N.C. -- Florida State had just given up a big play -- and the lead -- to start the fourth quarter against a team desperate for its first conference win.
Christian Ponder and the Seminoles knew exactly how to respond.
Ponder threw the go-ahead touchdown pass and Graham Gano kicked two of his four field goals in the final 4 1/2 minutes to help Florida State beat North Carolina State 26-17 on Thursday night, the Seminoles' third straight victory.
Antone Smith ran for 89 yards and a touchdown for Florida State (5-1, 2-1 Atlantic Coast Conference), which scored the last 13 points of the game to give assistant coach Chuck Amato a successful return to the stadium he called home for seven seasons.
"I can't remember the last time we won a game like this on the road, when we go into their stadium and [the other team] is fired up and we're favored and we win," Florida State coach Bobby Bowden said. "Maybe this will mean something. N.C. State will fight you to the end. We're very fortunate to come up here and get a win."
This was the third straight time the Wolfpack's home game with the Seminoles was a nationally televised Thursday night game. In 2004 and '06, the matchups made for good drama since Amato was leading his alma mater against his mentor and Florida State, where he spent 18 seasons as an assistant before taking over here in 2000. This time, the curiosity was seeing Amato on the sideline opposite the Wolfpack (2-5, 0-3).
Amato won 49 games and reached five bowl games in his tenure, with most of that success coming during the career of four-year starter and NFL first-round draft pick Philip Rivers at quarterback. He was fired at the end of the 2006 season and replaced by Tom O'Brien, then returned to Bowden's staff.
After the game, Amato admitted he twice got too choked up to walk onto the field for pregame warmups.
"It's bittersweet," he said. "There are a lot of good kids over there. I don't care what their record is, they are good players and good kids. There's a bunch of kids over there who know how to beat Florida State and they don't flinch when they play Florida State."
Ponder had turned heads with his 144 yards rushing -- the second-most by an FSU quarterback -- in a win against Miami on Oct. 4, but on Thursday he looked sharp throwing the football. He was 23-of-35 for 254 yards, including the go-ahead 17-yard touchdown to Bert Reed after Russell Wilson's 67-yard scoring pass to Owen Spencer had put N.C. State up 17-13.
The Seminoles finished with 392 yards and held the ball for more than 38 minutes.
"I thought we played pretty good," O'Brien said. "We hung in there and fought. We just couldn't get off the field."
Wilson threw for 181 yards and two touchdowns to lead N.C. State, which finished with 338 yards but couldn't manage an answer to Florida State's late push.
The Wolfpack came out of its bye week with a surge from its once-anemic ground game. N.C. State entered with an ACC-worst 80 yards rushing per game and faced the league's top run defense (64 yards per game), but rolled to a season-best 157 yards on 22 carries. Jamelle Eugene led the team with 74 yards on six carries, while Andre Brown added 50 yards.
That opened things downfield and set up Wilson's long play-action pass over the middle to Spencer, who sprinted away from defender Korey Mangum on the first play of the fourth quarter.
But Ponder directed a 70-yard drive to answer, pushing to N.C. State's 17 before finding Reed, who got a solid block at the line and then weaved through the Wolfpack defense for the 20-17 lead with 10:40 to play.
"We knew this would be a four-quarter game, a dogfight," Ponder said. "We were prepared for it. We knew we had to put it all together like we did against Miami and we did. ... We have confidence in ourselves and we're getting better and better with each game."
After forcing a three-and-out, the Seminoles put together a drive that took more than 4 minutes. This one ended with a 44-yard field goal from Gano to make it 23-17 with 4:33 left, forcing the Wolfpack to go the distance to take the lead.
That was too much to ask, as N.C. State made two critical mistakes on its last best chance. First, a holding penalty negated a 14-yard run by Wilson to midfield, then Wilson took a sack and a 9-yard loss instead of throwing it away on third down. That forced N.C. State into a fourth-and-14 from its own 30, and Rod Roberts tipped Wilson's pass intended for Eugene to end the possession with 2:55 left.
Gano kicked a 53-yarder on the next series to seal the win.
"We've got to find ways to win games," Wilson said, "no excuses."
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