LOUISVILLE, Kentucky — In most cases, a 21-0 lead would seem safe for Louisville.
That certainly seemed to be the case Thursday night against second-ranked Florida State when the Cardinals carried out their game plan to the letter in knocking the Seminoles and Heisman Trophy quarterback Jameis Winston off their game. Unfortunately for Louisville, a half remained to be played, plenty of time for Winston to bail out his team.
Winston threw three touchdown passes to offset a three-interception start, and Dalvin Cook had two long scoring runs to help Florida State rally for a 42-31 victory.
"That hurts a lot," Louisville coach Bobby Petrino said. "We got ahead of them and we got some opportunities. You have to give Florida State a lot of credit for them being able to make play when the pressure was on. They made some really good throws and catches."
"We've been there before," Winston said. "Being down is nothing when you've got heart and you persevere. Personally, we play better when we're down, honestly.
Winston was 25 of 48 for 401 yards. Florida State outgained Louisville 574-488, including 374 in the second half. Cook ran for touchdowns of 40 and 38 yards, the second putting Florida State ahead for good with 3:46 remaining.
"We got too relaxed," Louisville linebacker Lorenzo Mauldin said about leading the first 28 minutes. "Coming in it was 21-7; we just came out and basically let them run all over us.
"Basically we couldn't stop the runs in the beginning of the second half. With Winston, he just beat us with his arm."
On a night that Louisville (6-3, 4-3, No. 25 CFP) nearly took away Florida State's hopes of competing for a second straight national title, the Cardinals instead ended up having their quest for a signature win under their first-year coach snatched away.
The presence of Muhammad Ali was fitting in a game that the Cardinals initially dominated with a smashmouth approach that provided a 21-point first-half lead and knocked the Seminoles on the ropes. Michael Dyer had TD runs of 4 and 12 yards and Gerald Christian caught an 11-yard scoring pass from Will Gardner.
Florida State began its comeback just before halftime when Winston, shaking off two interceptions that Louisville turned into 14 points, led the Seminoles 78 yards on a drive that ended weird touchdown when Nick O'Leary recovered Karlos Williams' fumble in the end zone.
The intermission gave Winston and Florida State time to regroup, though not before his third interception and second by Louisville safety Gerod Holliman. Ironically, Winston's biggest play came after the pickoff as he came up and stripped Holliman of the ball, which Travis Rudolph recovered at the Florida State 40.
The Seminoles turned it over on downs but Winston found Rudolph wide open down the middle between two defenders for a 68-yard TD strike that cut it to 24-14 with 9:51 left in the quarter.
Florida State's swagger was back, and Cook turned it into a 40-yard touchdown run nearly 4 minutes later to bring the Seminoles within a field goal.
Winston's TD pass to Lane with 12:48 left provided Florida State's first lead and the game became a slugfest from there as Dyer answered for Louisville with a 1-yard TD run with 9:20 left. The Seminoles took charge from there with Cook's TD run and Stevenson's pass from Winston.
Louisville's loss spoiled a career night for wide receiver DeVante Parker, who caught eight passes for 214 yards.
Dyer was destined to be a hero as well with 28 carries for 134 yards and three touchdowns, while Gardner completed 20 of 38 passes for 330 passes.
"We just didn't finish what we needed to," Gardner said. "We got the ball back with six minutes to go and we just needed to keep getting first downs to run the clock out."
In the end the Cardinals were overshadowed by Florida State and Winston, whose poise after a bad start kept the Seminoles in the running for their second straight national title.
But it took overcoming a Louisville team that wasn't fazed by the Seminoles' standing, quarterback or anything else for that matter.
Louisville charged the crowd of 55,414 on the game's first play as Gardner hit a wide-open Parker down the middle for 71 yards to the Florida State 4. Three plays gained 6 more yards but the Cardinals eventually turned it over on downs as Gardner's fourth-and-goal pass sailed past Gerald Christian, among several receivers well covered by the Seminoles.
Louisville's nation-leading defense kept Winston and Florida State from getting started. Despite crossing midfield twice, the Seminoles never got much further as the Cardinals pressured the Heisman Trophy winner while covering his receivers.
Winston had time to throw in the second half, his receivers had space and the result was a loss that the Cardinals found hard to digest.
"It hurt, it hurt, especially when we jumped out 21-zip on a number-two ranked team," cornerback Charles Gaines said. "And I feel like we could beat them, we all felt like that at the time. We felt like we could beat them, we still like we could beat them.
"But like I said, they always find a way to win."