Florida State isn't a team; it's a carnival. It swoops, it whirls, it has more moves than a midway contortionist. Last Saturday, the No. 1-ranked Seminoles took a momentous occasion, a classic intersectional matchup with Michigan on a perfect autumn afternoon in Ann Arbor, and turned it into a spinning ride in a mad teacup. "It was fun at first," said Wolverine tailback Ricky Powers. "Then I looked at the score at the end." There was good reason to feel somewhat dizzy, for the final score read Florida State 51, Michigan 31.
What happened at Michigan Stadium eradicated every assumption made about Florida State's warm-weather slickness and speed against Michigan's Rust Belt heft and depth. After all of the fakes, flea-flickers, broken-field runs and missed point-after opportunities by the Seminoles, what happened was this: The normally begrudging Wolverines yielded more points to a visiting opponent than any other Michigan team in history.
Love the Seminoles or hate them, call them a trumped-up conglomeration of reflector-shade personalities if you like, but do not attempt to deny that they are the swiftest, most destructive team in the country. Accept, too, that they might well be the next national champion. Going into the game, Michigan was ranked third, had handily beaten Notre Dame two weeks earlier and was as imposing as any team in the country. Yet the Seminoles still hung half a hundred on the scoreboard.
What did that say about Florida State? "When this team wants something, it gets it," said Seminole quarterback Casey Weldon after the game. Florida State got it in nearly every way imaginable—or at least in every way that coach Bobby Bow-den's fertile mind could imagine—in a performance that alternately shut the mouths of the 106,145 fans and left their mouths agape.
It's too bad that the score was a travesty, because the first two quarters of play bordered on the sublime. The first half included a fake field goal by the Seminoles, on which holder Brad Johnson shoveled the ball to blocking back William Floyd for a four-yard touchdown; an actual field goal by Michigan's J.D. Carlson, a dramatic 47-yarder that bounced over the crossbar; and a seven-yard scoring pass from Wolverine quarterback Elvis Grbac to fullback Burnie Legette that narrowed Florida State's lead to 25-23. And there was still 7:52 remaining before intermission. By halftime, however, the Seminoles led 31-23, and in the second half they smothered Michigan's offense, holding the Wolverines to one harmless fourth-quarter touchdown.
Florida State's offense was so potent that it could afford freshman kicker Dan Mowrey's hapless foot. Mowrey converted only one of his four extra-point attempts, and the Seminoles failed on a pair of two-point conversion attempts as well. Michigan coach Gary Moeller was so fearful of Florida State's firepower that he gambled—and lost—on two fourth-down plays early in the fourth quarter rather than attempt field goals that, if successful, could have brought the Wolverines to within eight points.
But, honestly, what would have been enough against these Seminoles? What could Michigan have done to counter guys like Amp Lee, a bumper car of a runner who slipped by, around and through four Wolverines on a 44-yard scoring dash in the first quarter, added a five-yard touchdown run in the second that had cornerback Lance Dottin lunging at air and rushed for a game-high 122 yards on 20 carries? "This man must be group-tackled," said Michigan linebacker Brian Townsend.
How could Michigan have prevailed against the often overlooked Weldon, who threw three touchdown passes with linemen collapsing all over him and Wolverine helmets aimed at his ribs? Weldon, a senior who's 10-0 as a starter, has completed 64 of 92 (70%) passes this year for 896 yards. With his performance against Michigan he may finally have elbowed his way onto the list of Heisman Trophy candidates.
The player at the top of that list is still Michigan wide receiver Desmond Howard, who on Saturday made heroic touchdown catches of 13 and 42 yards and finished with 189 all-purpose yards. "It's no disgrace getting beat by Number One," said Howard softly. No, it wasn't a disgrace. It was just so surprising.
Most surprising was that Florida State was so dominant on both sides of the ball. While the Seminole offense was catching its breath, the defense intercepted Michigan four times, and two of those pickoffs were returned for the first and last touchdowns of the game. Moreover, Florida State not only stopped the Wolverines on those two key fourth-down plays in the final quarter but also allowed Michigan to convert only four of 16 third-down plays all day. In the meeting of speed versus strength, speed killed. More important, it was joined by force.
The tenor of the game was set on the second play from scrimmage, when Florida State cornerback Terrell Buckley stepped in front of Howard in the flat, grabbed a Grbac pass and returned it 39 yards for a touchdown. That began a marvelous individual battle between Buckley and Howard that continued throughout the game. Howard balanced the ledger with his 13-yard touchdown reception, a leaping catch that tied the score at 7-7 in the first quarter. Then, with Buckley climbing up his back, Howard made his 42-yarder at the back of the end zone in the second quarter. But Buckley intercepted a second pass, in the end zone late in the third quarter. "Great players come to play," said Buckley afterward.
Howard was magnificent, but he was largely a soloist. He has accounted for eight of Michigan's 11 offensive touchdowns this season, a virtuoso performance but one that suggests that the Wolverines do not have the sort of complete offensive machine that the Seminoles displayed. "Howard can have the Heisman if we win the national championship," Weldon said. "I'll take that trade right now."
In each of the last four years Florida State has finished among the top four teams in the nation but hasn't won a national title. In 1988, the Seminoles were ranked No. 1 in the preseason, but then Miami crushed them 31-0 in the opening game for both teams. "We didn't know how to act or live with Number One," says Bowden.
Apparently, they do now. But before Florida State can win the national championship, it will have to win its state championship—the Seminoles will face No. 2 Miami on Nov. 16 and visit Florida on Nov. 30—and this Saturday they take on 10th-ranked Syracuse, which upset the Gators on Sept. 21. Buckley, though, has no doubts. "This can jump a program from almost-great to great," he said after Saturday's victory. "We've been almost-great."
That almost-greatness has nagged at Buckley on his visits to Miami, where he sees friends like Lamar Thomas, a Hurricane wideout who has a national championship ring. "I want to sport a ring," says Buckley, a junior who was a second-team All-America last year. "I want people to say, 'My friend Terrell Buckley plays for Florida State, and he's got a national championship ring.' When I see Lamar and he puts his hand out with a ring on it, I want to be able put my hand out, too."
It's tempting to regard Florida State as another mouthy, flashy Sunshine State team like Miami, thanks largely to Deion Sanders (page 90). But with the exception of Buckley and his rather sturdy sense of self-regard, the Seminoles are a subdued lot. "We wear our shorts and our flip-flops and hang out a little," says Weldon. "We really don't talk [trash] at all."
Said Michigan linebacker Erick Anderson last Saturday, "They play hard, they're clean, they're quiet."
Another misconception about the Seminoles is that they are long on finesse and short on muscle. When confronted with the Wolverines and their brutish brand of football, Florida State proved that it could more than hold its own against a physically prepossessing opponent. "We took it upon ourselves to show we could grind the ball if we had to," said Lee. On the other side of the ball, Florida State's defensive front seven faced a Michigan offensive line that outweighed the Seminoles by 56 pounds per man. However, those huge Wolverines did not move the Seminoles when they had to.
As formidable as Florida State was, the game's decisive sequence did not occur until the start of the fourth quarter, with the Seminoles leading 37-23. Michigan, after a long drive, was facing third-and-six at the Seminole 20. Grbac looked for Howard on their favorite pattern, an out to the end zone, but with Buckley staying with Howard step-for-step, the ball was thrown wide of Howard. At that point, Moeller made the first of his two crucial fourth-down decisions. Rather than call upon Carlson, who had converted 21 of 25 field goal tries from inside the 40 before this season, Moeller again ordered up the out pattern for Howard. This pass, too, was beyond Howard's reach.
After Michigan held Florida State on downs, Howard burst up the sideline on a 40-yard punt return, which would have been a touchdown had not Seminole Steve Gilmer barely caught Howard from behind, grabbing him by the seat of his pants at the Florida State 20. Three plays later, the Wolverines were contemplating fourth-and-one at the 11. Again Moeller shunned the field goal. "You've got to convert those," he said afterward. "I wouldn't change those calls." Legette was met solidly over left guard by linebacker Marvin Jones for no gain.
"On those third and fourth downs with short yardages, they just beat us to the play," said Powers, who gained 97 yards on 29 carries. "They got up the middle and stopped it. They were fast, real fast. I couldn't make my cuts because they were already there."
Florida State took over and commenced a 10-play, 89-yard drive that used up 4:29 and ended with Weldon completing a 10-yard touchdown pass to tight end Lonnie Johnson. Reserve kicker John Wimberly converted the extra point. It was perhaps the least glamorous of the Seminoles' six scoring drives, but it gave them an insurmountable 44-23 lead with 6:21 remaining.
The drive also consigned Michigan once again to the ranks of the near great. Still, the Wolverines, who are now 3-14-1 against No. 1-ranked teams over the past 56 years, are not out of the national championship picture. If they win the rest of their regular-season games and beat an undefeated Washington team in the Rose Bowl, they could be back in it. Michigan didn't deserve to be beaten as badly as it was, and the Seminoles certainly didn't think they would score so many points. It was to Michigan's credit that, until the waning minutes, no margin ever seemed safe enough for Florida State. "We knew they would never stop," said Weldon.
Like a carnival, when the Seminoles moved on, they left behind a lot of trampled ground and empty wrappers. Grbac slipped out of the locker room without a word. "They deserve the Number One ranking," said Moeller. Across the courtyard, Buckley leaned against a locker room wall and summed up the afternoon. "We're Number One, and we know we're good," he said. "This one was for the doubters."