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Florida State, Miami breathe life into stale rivalry with thriller

In a second that felt like an hour late Monday night, Christian Ponder knelt on the sideline. He didn't know whether to celebrate or mourn. A Florida State teammate raced over, anxious to be the first to dogpile the victorious quarterback. Across the field, Miami players leaned forward and didn't make a sound.

The man in the striped shirt finally moved. His arms stayed by his waist. Incomplete. Final score: 38-34 Miami. Ponder sank. On the other sideline, the Hurricanes launched a Category 5 celebration.

Then everything stopped again. The officials wanted another look. FSU receiver Jarmon Fortson had sunk to his knees a minute earlier in the end zone to snare a rapidly descending Ponder pass as time expired. The ball had hit his hands, then his forearms. But gravity is a cruel mistress, and she sucked that pigskin down just enough to make it brush the garnet grass. As officials discussed the play, Fortson dropped to his knees again, pantomiming the play for backup quarterback E.J. Manuel. The rest of the Seminoles stared at referee Jeff Flanagan. Across the field, the Hurricanes did the same thing.

After a minute that felt like a day, Flanagan doffed his headset and clicked on his microphone. "The ruling on the field is confirmed," Flanagan said. "Time has expired." The Seminoles slumped. On the other sideline, the Hurricanes exploded.

Then, with howling pain in front of him and unbridled joy behind him, Flanagan dipped his head. "The ball game," he said, "is over."

Had it gone 17 overtimes, no one would have complained. Seminoles coach Bobby Bowden called it the third greatest game he'd ever seen -- behind Miami-Florida State 1987 and Notre Dame-Florida State in 1993 -- and since Bowden has seen 86 percent of the football games ever played, we shouldn't doubt the accuracy of his assessment.

Across the stadium, in a room adjacent to the dank visitors' locker room, Miami coach Randy Shannon took his seat and summed up his team's victory thusly: "Woooooooo."

Miami and Florida State, on the home stretch of a race back to relevance, played to a photo finish Monday night. The Hurricanes won by the nose of the ball, but anyone who loves college football should rejoice that two very important programs seem to have stepped away from the edge of the abyss.

Florida State has a bona fide star in freshman cornerback Greg Reid, who introduced himself to the college football world by averaging 33.3 yards a kickoff return, intercepting a pass, making three tackles, and pressuring Miami quarterback Jacory Harris into throwing an interception that Markus White returned for a touchdown. By the way, Reid -- who was set to attend rival Florida but got spooked by the Gators' loaded depth chart -- didn't even start.

That oversight could be rectified as early as Saturday's tussle with Jacksonville State. Reid said flaws in his technique had kept him in a nickel role and out of the starting lineup. "Based on what I saw tonight, he may not be very far at all," defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews said. "We've got to get somebody to step it up and make plays instead of giving up plays."

In the giving up department, the 40-yard pass Miami receiver Travis Benjamin caught to set up GraigCooper's decisive touchdown sailed over the heads of cornerback Ochuko Jenije and safety Jamie Robinson. Jenije, a junior, may soon find himself playing behind a freshman.

Youth was served all over the field Monday. Miami has a bona fide star in sophomore quarterback Harris, who threw that 40-yarder to Benjamin the only 1-square-foot window that would have allowed for a completion. At the time, none of the other Hurricanes knew Harris couldn't feel his ring and pinky finger or most of his throwing arm.

"He did that?" Hurricanes offensive tackle Jason Fox said. "That's impressive."

It's probably fitting that Reid caused the injury. On the play that resulted in the pick-six that allowed Florida State to take a 31-24 lead, Harris whacked his humerus bone during the collision. "I must have had a bad, bad, bad funny bone injury," he said. "When I got hit, my whole arm just died on me. I didn't know if it was broken or not. I just looked at it, and it wasn't out of place."

Lovers of Da U felt their hearts stop momentarily when ESPN cameras showed true freshman A.J. Highsmith warming up on the sidelines. After an exodus of reserve signal-callers, Highsmith is the only player even semi-qualified to back up Harris. Harris, still unsure of the severity of the injury, tried taking a snap. He dropped it. He tried again. He still couldn't feel anything. He didn't care. "I knew that I couldn't let the team down," he said. "I had to go right back in."

Harris threw for 122 of his 386 yards with three fingers. That includes the 40-yarder to Benjamin. He may keep throwing with three fingers even after the feeling returns. "I might as well," he said. "If three fingers is going to help me do something like that."

The feeling returned Monday to a rivalry that hasn't meant much for most of this decade. We'll know in a few days what it meant. Miami faces Georgia Tech on Sept. 17. Florida State will face BYU in Provo on Sept. 19. Both teams need to develop a pass rush -- Bowden called it "the worst pass-rush game in the history of college football" -- but the pieces are in place, and most of those pieces are freshmen and sophomores. Miami coach Shannon, who has stared down the Seminoles as a player, as an assistant and as a head coach, said it best.

"Another typical Florida State-Miami game," he said.

About time.

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