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Stoops' defense preserves win

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – An Atlantic Coast Conference championship that was seven years in the making turned out to a be a nail-biter.

Mark Stoops' defense held Georgia Tech to three field goals in the first three quarters, then got a game-saving interception to seal the Seminoles' win. Photo by Travis Register

And in what he admits is likely his final game on the Florida State sideline, Mark Stoops’ defense turned in a memorable performance to wrap up the program’s first conference title since 2005.

Safety Karlos Williams had a game-clinching interception of Tevin Washington with 1 minute left and the defense held Georgia Tech’s triple-option offense to 183 rushing yards – 140 below the Yellow Jackets’ season average – as Florida State escaped with a 21-15 win in the ACC championship game.

On Tuesday, Stoops was named Kentucky’s head coach. He’s realized his dream of running his own program, and he will do it in the best conference in the nation.

But on Saturday he was Florida State’s defensive coordinator. He wanted to stay on this week to finish what he helped start with coach Jimbo Fisher three seasons ago.

“Very excited for our players,” Stoops said after the game. “They deserved it. That’s a special group to coach. It was good to go out and win a championship.

“It would have been very, very difficult to walk out of here and not win this game tonight, and not win a championship. It would have been a bad feeling for me. We’ve worked too hard, we’ve come too far.”

How far? Florida State allowed 30 points a game in 2009, the last season that Mickey Andrews coached the defense. Fisher took over for Bobby Bowden in 2010, and he hired Stoops. And in Stoops’ three seasons, those numbers have dropped dramatically – 18 points allowed per game in 2010, 15 in 2011 and 15 this season.

That’s why Stoops is bound for Lexington. He made Florida State’s defense into one of the best in the nation.

And maybe it was fitting that on his last night as a Florida State employee, his group came through. Florida State put some points on the scoreboard on in the first half with three rushing touchdowns. But after that? Nothing.

It was up to the defense to again rescue Florida State. The Seminoles allowed Georgia Tech (6-7) to drive, but held the Yellow Jackets to just three field goals in the first three quarters.

Washington had a 1-yard touchdown run with 6:27 left in the game to trim the Florida State lead to 21-15, but the two-point conversion failed. The Seminoles countered with a drive, but a third-and-long pass by EJ Manuel was intercepted.

Georgia Tech had one last chance with 2:17 on the clock and 85 yards to go. The Yellow Jackets completed a few passes, including a third-and-14 strike from Washington to Darren Waller. Then on fourth-and-1, Washington had a 5-yard run.

The Yellow Jackets were building momentum. But then Washington dropped back, and fired the ball into the hands of Florida State’s Williams, who raced down the sideline 41 yards to seal the win.

Washington was 4 of 14 for just 76 yards. And his last pass, which was arguably his worst.

“The quarterback threw a pretty bad ball,” Williams said. “I just broke on it and tried to tip it up and bat it down, but luckily it tipped up in the air and I just tried to make a sure catch and that's what happened.”

Florida State struggled on offense in the second half on Saturday. But not on defense, and now the Seminoles (11-2) have captured their 13th ACC title and the first in Fisher’s three seasons as head coach.

The Seminoles will play in the Orange Bowl on Jan. 1 against Louisville, Boise State or Northern Illinois, which will be determined when the final Bowl Championship Series standings are released on Sunday night.

And the national perception of the ACC title will be met with a “so what?” by many college football fans. Many will perceive that Florida State won a championship in a weak conference and in league that had a weak season.

But the program, while certainly not yet a national title contender, has made significant strides in the three seasons under the guidance of Fisher and Stoops. They changed the culture, one where the players seemed to shrug off losses. That wouldn’t be tolerated, Fisher and Stoops insisted repeatedly.

Stoops talked Saturday about walking out the door with a win. He didn’t want to get on a plane to Lexington and take his next job without helping Florida State win a title. And while it won’t be a national title, he feels that he accomplished enough in Tallahassee.

“They bought in right from the start,” Stoops said of his first days at Florida State in January 2010. “We have a tremendous group of coaches working with me. We grew each and every week, we grew each year. After all that hard work, they deserved this championship right here.”

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