MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- They all should have known it was over when Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III stepped out of bounds on an interception return with 9:30 remaining in the game. Had he not stepped on the sideline, Hargreaves might have gone all the way to the end zone. He might have given the Gators a lead their defense would never relinquish. But there is such a thing, apparently, as cosmic justice. Florida had survived in a 14-7 squeaker against Missouri last November. Then the Gators -- alleged national title contenders -- had needed a punt block to avoid the shame of losing to Louisiana-Lafayette at home a week later (they won 27-20). Sooner or later, they were going to either run out of luck or run short of defensive dominance, and the Florida offense would have to win a game by putting the ball in the end zone.
That moment came on Saturday when Hargreaves' foot caught the chalk at the Miami 47-yard line. Suddenly, maligned Gators quarterback Jeff Driskel had to get the best of a young Miami defense that grew up during last year's 7-5 season. The Hurricanes' D came to Sun Life Stadium on Saturday to prove that Miami could still challenge for the state title -- a team that can vie for that crown, after all, can usually play for shinier ones, as well. Driskel and Florida bulled their way into the red zone in just four plays. In five previous trips, they had managed all of nine points, but the momentum of the game now seemed to be going their way. On third-and-three from the 17-yard line, Driskel took the snap, sprinted right and threw to ... who? Receivers Trey Burton and Quinton Dunbar were in the area, but it wasn't clear which one Driskel was actually throwing to. Hurricanes sophomore cornerback Tracy Howard -- one of the youngsters thrown into the fire last year as a true freshman -- saw the ball floating in the air and snagged it at the 12.
The teams traded touchdowns after that, but Howard's interception marked the end of both the game and, for all intents and purposes, the Florida-Miami rivalry. The Gators, who rode their defense and special teams to an 11-2 record last season, were failed once again by their offense. The 'Canes, with a quality offense and a giant question mark on defense going into Saturday, took another huge step forward under coach Al Golden, who has led them through a seemingly never-ending NCAA investigation, and has them playing like a team that can challenge anyone.
From 1944 to 1987, this rivalry was an every-year game. The demands of Florida's SEC commitments made it more sporadic, and ultimately ended it, because the Gators did not want to add another difficult home-and-home series to a schedule that already included the SEC and Florida State -- and also because Florida likes making gobs of money off of home games against overmatched directional schools. With Miami's 21-16 win on Saturday, the Hurricanes own bragging rights until either the Gators agree to play them again, or until the two teams get matched in a bowl game.
ELLIS: Miami's defense rises to the occasion against Florida; more early Snaps
Saturday meant more to Miami. That much was obvious in the Hurricanes' postgame celebration, which was filled with more joy than Alabama's national title celebration on the same field last January. Everyone in orange found someone to hug. Miami needed a nationally televised win against a respected opponent to show off the foundation Golden and his staff have poured the past two seasons. That such a victory came against an in-state rival that no longer wants to play the 'Canes only made it that much sweeter.
"It was almost cathartic, to be honest with you," Golden said. "It was just 26 months there unleashed in the last four or five seconds. I'm proud of these guys. You guys watched us grow. We couldn't handle this setting a year ago."
As the Hurricanes dressed in their locker room before the game, sophomore defensive end Tyriq McCord didn't sense anything different about the day. Then he ran through the smoke during pregame introductions just before kickoff. "When we came out here," McCord said, pointing at the field, "we knew it meant something." Though the crowd of 76,968 set an attendance record for Miami since its move to Sun Life Stadium from the Orange Bowl in 2008, it wasn't a true sellout. There were rows of empty seats. It came close only because of all the Florida fans. But no one plays for the Hurricanes because of the crowds. Miami has always had fair-weather fans. The 'Canes play for one another, and they acted like it on Saturday.
Every time Miami's defense needed to make a stop, it did. The Gators' offense had a hard time scoring, but it actually moved the ball better than it did in most games last year. The Hurricanes dug in when they needed to, though. Here are the results of the six trips that Florida made into the red zone on Saturday: touchdown*, interception, turnover on downs, fumble, field goal, interception.
*Florida's first touchdown drive began on the Miami nine-yard line after cornerback Loucheiz Purifoy blocked a punt.
As Gators coach Will Muschamp stared at a stat sheet after the game -- with a shock of his brown hair standing straight up from one too many stress-induced run-throughs with his hand -- he didn't regret not scoring more touchdowns. He just wished his team had taken care of the ball. That way, Florida would have won in the same boring fashion that everyone in Gainesville complained about last year. "End every possession with a kick," Muschamp said, "and you'll win a bunch of games."
Instead, the Gators ended five possessions with turnovers. The final one came when they were trailing 16-9. They had gotten the ball back by forcing the Hurricanes to go three-and-out after the Howard interception; with the exception of two first-quarter drives, Florida's defense played lights-out. On third-and-seven from his own 17, Driskel set up to pass. But McCord beat left tackle Max Garcia -- in the game because starter D.J. Humphries injured his knee -- to the outside and then started the trifecta: "Sack-caused fumble is the best play in football," he said after the game. He fell on the bouncing ball at the Florida five-yard line. "You sleep and dream about it," he said. "Then you wake up and it's a reality."
The reality for Miami is that Saturday's win will earn the team some much-deserved respect. As for what it means to the football program, different players had different opinions. "We're back," McCord said. "That's all I'm saying. We're back." Junior linebacker Denzel Perryman, however, cautioned against reading too much into one game. "This is a big win for us, obviously," he said. "But we can't make it more than it is."
The reality for the Gators is that they will still get judged by how they play against the rest of the SEC. That doesn't mean this loss won't hurt. "Nah, man," Muschamp said. "Losing is losing."
After the Hurricanes recovered a Florida onside kick with 2:08 remaining, Gators defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. lit into Miami receiver Phillip Dorsett. As an official held back the 266-pound Fowler, the 179-pound Dorsett calmly raised his arm and pointed to the scoreboard.
Unless Florida relents and decides to play Miami again, those numbers are going to stay stuck that way for a long, long time.