Florida State coach Mike Norvell

Three weeks ago, Florida State coach Mike Norvell sat alone at home watching his team lose in embarrassing fashion to rival Miami in yet another dispiriting loss for a program searching for a way to turn a corner.

Perhaps that is what happened Saturday against North Carolina. Playing with an intensity, passion and energy missing in recent years, the Seminoles upset No. 5 North Carolina 31-28 on Saturday night, holding on for a victory they desperately needed to build the type of confidence and momentum any first-year coach wants as he builds his program.

Florida State entered the game as a double-digit home underdog, in large part because of its poor performance to open the season. But Norvell saw improvements in a loss to Notre Dame last week, and that gave him hope there would be more to come against the Tar Heels.

Indeed, Florida State posted its first win as an unranked team versus an AP top-5 opponent since 2007 against No. 2 Boston College. All of that would have been hard to imagine at the end of September, when Norvell missed the Miami game because of a positive coronavirus test and the Seminoles unraveled in front of a national television audience.

Asked to describe the win Saturday, Norvell said, “There’s really no words for it. It’s so special because since Dec. 8, the first time I walked into that meeting room with my team and this group, every moment we tried to grow and improve, believing in what was coming. I tell our guys, the ultimate objective with every opportunity you get is to try to go out and be the best you.

“To see their celebrations, to see the joy, to know, stacked against all odds, not many people gave us a chance tonight, but they didn’t worry about what other people thought of them. They didn’t think about any of the limitations that would be put out in front of them. They just went out and played their game. Tonight was about these guys. It was their moment, and they definitely deserve the victory for how they prepared, and how they responded to all that they’re asked to do.”

Florida State jumped out to a 31-7 lead, but the Tar Heels fought their way back. When the fourth quarter started, the Tar Heels had closed the gap and trailed 31-21. Norvell said he pulled his entire team together with a smile on his face and told them, “‘Guys, this is where you rely on what you do. I can’t tell you what this fourth quarter is going to look like, but you go out there and you play the next play. You give everything you have. You maximize your effort in this opportunity.’ They did that. We found a way to be one play better tonight. It’s going to be monumental for us to continue to grow and build off this example.”

North Carolina had one final shot to win or tie the game on its final drive. When North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell’s fourth-down pass went incomplete, a massive celebration ensued.

“It was the greatest feeling I’ve ever felt in my life seeing the defense come up big like that,” Florida State quarterback Jordan Travis said.

Added offensive lineman Devontay Love-Taylor, “The celebration, especially after what we’ve been through this season, the tough loss at Miami, the tough loss here for Georgia Tech, all the work we’ve put in, we felt like it paid off tonight. But we’ve got to keep putting in the work so it can continue to keep paying off.”

Norvell sees plenty to clean up, including an inability to score in the second half, and too many undisciplined penalties that nearly cost the Seminoles the game. That will come during film study and practice next week and in the weeks to come.

“We’re not perfect,” Norvell said. “We’re a work in progress, but when you get a chance to see growth, when you see improvement, when you see investment — it’s not for everybody. We’ve had some guys that chose other things, the guys that are here continuing to work, they’re continuing to try to be the best version of themselves in all aspects of their lives. That’s what tonight’s about.

“We’re still going to push because I know we’re capable of so much more.”

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