TAMPA — For the season’s first three games, Florida State running back Dalvin Cook was largely invisible, at least by his lofty standards.
Was he injured?
Was he slowed by 10 pounds of added muscle?
There were questions.
Saturday afternoon, Cook provided answers.
Cook raced for a career-high 267 yards — including a 75-yard touchdown run on FSU’s first play from scrimmage — as the Seminoles manhandled the University of South Florida Bulls, 55-35, in a non-conference bounce-back game.
The Seminoles (3-1) were coming off a 63-20 meltdown at Louisville, one that seemingly removed them from the national conversation. After three games, Cook had just 228 yards rushing, a mere whisper compared to his audacious 2015 season (1,691 yards rushing).
Cook surpassed that total with Saturday’s performance alone.
Afterward, he seemed mystified that anyone was doubting his ability.
“I think the question gets answered every week,’’ Cook said. “In my opinion, I didn’t know why it was a question.
“People are getting caught in having the stats, doing this and that. We’re playing the same football we do every week. I just let the game come to me.’’
Saturday’s game came to Cook on a big occasion.
“We just had to open more holes for Dalvin,’’ Seminoles fullback Freddie Stevenson said. “Once we did that, you saw what happened.’’
It began with a flurry. On the first play from scrimmage, USF quarterback Quinton Flowers hit Rodney Adams with an 84-yard bomb — the longest play surrendered by an FSU defense since 2005 — and it was 7-0.
The whispers of doubt began again…. but for just a few seconds.
On FSU’s first play, Cook bounced outside and roared down the left sideline, scoring untouched and giving the Seminoles a much-needed answer to USF’s opening punch.
“It was very important,’’ Cook said. “You’ve got to commend USF for coming out with a game plan and jumping on us early. We did a good job of responding.’’
For the USF defense, it was another nightmarish view of Cook, who pounded the Bulls with 266 yards rushing last season in Tallahassee.
“It’s just about us,’’ Cook said. “One thing at a time. We get ahead of ourselves sometimes.’’
Maybe it was a big presumptuous to dismiss FSU, too.
The Seminoles were ranked No. 2 in the nation for a reason, but they were blasted by Louisville, making it seem like FSU was far overrated.
And probably done.
Here’s the deal. If Clemson defeats visiting Louisville next Saturday — and FSU downs visiting Clemson on Oct. 29 — there’s the potential for a three-way tie in the ACC Atlantic. The Seminoles theoretically could become the highest-ranked team of that trio.
An ACC championship isn’t out of the question.
Cook cautioned against looking ahead.
“I’ve got to tell these guys every day, especially the offense, all we can do is go out there and control what we can control,’’ Cook said. “Now it’s next game up, North Carolina. We’re going to go out there and take care of business at Doak Campbell Stadium. That’s all we can do.’’
FSU coach Jimbo Fisher wants to see a lot more than the Seminoles provided on Saturday.
The Seminoles led 45-14 midway through the third quarter, but gave up large patches of yardage to USF in garbage time, making the margin closer.
With a combined 90 points and 1,097 yards of offense, it wasn’t what Fisher had in mind. FSU gained a ridiculous 647 yards, but surrendered 450. Good and bad.
“We’ve got to learn how to play 60 minutes of football, finish the game in all three phases,’’ Fisher said. “We got a victory. Other than that, we have a lot of work to do.’’
The opportunity to hand the ball to Dalvin Cook — and having him produce in Dalvin Cook-style — makes FSU’s season seem much more workable.