One Giant Step

Florida State finally beat Miami. Now all it has to do to become national champion is defeat Notre Dame, Florida and five other teams
October 17, 1993

After quarterback Charlie Ward had slipped away from the last defender and coach Bobby Bowden had pulled his last rooskie and Florida State had, at last, defeated Miami—after all that, the Seminoles' victory was still only partial. On the field receivers Tamarick Vanover and Kevin Knox held up a sign that read NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP, PART ONE.

The record crowd of 77,813 at Doak Campbell Stadium in Tallahassee scarcely had time to roar last Saturday before reality kicked in. For Vanover and Knox's sign was cautionary as well as celebratory. As significant as the occasion was—the Seminoles had preserved their No. 1 ranking and gone to 6-0 by beating the very team that had so often deprived them of national-title hopes—the fact remains that Florida State is less than halfway to the national championship.

The Seminoles have another seven games to play. More to the point, they must forge on to a meeting in South Bend on Nov. 13 with Notre Dame, which is 6-0 and ranked No. 3. Then it's on to Gainesville for a Nov. 27 date with archrival Florida, the nation's fourth-ranked team. And then the Seminoles must win a bowl game on Jan. 1. In other words, to be national champion, Florida State may well have to defeat four Top 5 teams, counting Miami. "Games of the Century One, Two and Three," Bowden said of his team's schedule. "And Four and Five and Six," added fullback William Floyd, perhaps mindful of, among other opponents, unbeaten and 15th-ranked Virginia, which the Seminoles play at home this week.

Thus Miami-Florida State was just Act I of a drama that promises to be as long as Nicholas Nickleby. Not that this act wasn't deserving of spotlights. After dismissing the Hurricanes from the stage by a score of 28-10, the Seminoles wore their smiles like mink stoics, luxuriating in a victory that did wonders for their self-esteem. Too often the Seminoles had been observers in the wings while Miami waltzed away with titles and statuettes. This time, though, Ward gave a performance—including a 72-yard scoring pass to Matt Frier and a two-yard touchdown run of his own—that was worthy of the Heisman Trophy. In supporting roles tailback Sean Jackson turned Florida State's third offensive play of the game into a 69-yard touchdown dance, and in the fourth quarter safety Devin Bush scored on a showy 40-yard interception return.

Florida State's victory over Miami, which had gone to Tallahassee ranked third and riding the nation's longest regular-season winning streak (31 games), lent credence to many analysts' belief that these Seminoles are one of the greatest collegiate teams ever. They better be, if they are to get through their schedule. "Write this down," said defensive back Clifton Abraham, who made a game-high 10 tackles. "Miami was the final obstacle. We're not going to beat Miami and lose to someone else."

Perhaps Florida State is foolish to place so much stock in one win. However, it's hard to understate the immensity of the victory to this team. As an event of national importance, the Florida State-Miami game is nouveau, a matter of the 1980s and '90s, but in that span it has shaped the college football picture more than any other contest. Since 1987 the Seminoles have finished among the top four teams in the country every year, but they have almost always ended up ranked behind the Hurricanes, who in the last 10 years have acquired four national titles and a habit of flashing large gold-and-diamond rings in the Seminoles' faces. Before Saturday, Florida State had lost seven of its last eight games with Miami, the last two having been burned into the minds of all who saw or took part in them as Wide Right I and Wide Right II.

In 1991 a field goal attempt by Gerry Thomas with seconds remaining tailed off to the right, ensuring a 17-16 Seminole loss. Last year Dan Mowrey's 38-yard attempt was again wide right, sealing a 19-16 defeat. Florida State fans can tell you where they were when John F. Kennedy was shot, where they were during the first moon walk and where they were for the wide rights. "I don't hardly ever forget about them," Bowden said last week.

That the two teams have been so similar in both style and skill has made the defeats even tougher for the Seminoles. The Miami-Florida State game is not a hate-fest on the level of Florida-Georgia or a class war like Alabama-Auburn. But it has an element of humiliation that those other games lack. The Seminoles and the Hurricanes don't despise each other—quite the opposite. Many of them know each other, some grew up together, and a few are close friends.

This year 78 Seminoles and 54 Hurricanes are from Florida. Losing the game is like losing to a brother. The losers never hear the end of it. Bush went to Hialeah-Miami Lakes High with his good friend Ryan Collins, the Hurricane reserve quarterback. "I'm so glad I don't have to go home now and listen to all that trash," said Bush after Saturday's game. "I hated going home."

Who else but the Hurricanes and the Seminoles would telephone each other's dorm rooms at all hours to boast, taunt and dis? The shenanigans began on Sunday evening, six days before the game. Rap artist Luther Campbell, a member of the group 2 Live Crew and a Miami fan, organized a conference call in Miami with a dozen or so Hurricanes. Meanwhile, in Tallahassee, roughly the same number of Seminoles gathered to take the Hurricanes' call in the dorm room of defensive end Toddrick McIntosh. The Seminoles put a Florida State highlight video on McIntosh's TV and blasted a Phil Collins tune, In the Air Tonight. Miami receiver Jonathan Harris vowed he would score a touchdown on Florida State defensive back Corey Sawyer, who swore he would give Harris his Seminole jersey if he suffered such an embarrassment.

That started a spate of late-night long-distance phone calls that went on for the remainder of the week. Floyd called Hurricane defensive tackle Dwayne Johnson and said, "Get ready for me. I'm coming." Floyd also exchanged some trash with Miami defensive tackle Warren Sapp. "I've never heard of anything like it," Bowden said. "I don't know why they do it. I don't know what they say to each other. I don't want to know."

One curious feature of the rivalry is that while the two teams taunt, they do not brawl. The reason may be the sheer importance of the occasion. "This is the big money game," Vanover said last week. NFL scouts are watching. In the last six years a staggering 87 players from Miami and Florida State have been drafted by the NFL. "We're a special breed of player," Floyd said. "Stars are made—it's the driving point of the whole game."

With all that at stake, it was of incalculable value to the Seminoles to finally come out the winner. They discovered that this year they are more resourceful, more experienced, more disciplined and more talented than Miami. Florida State's offense had scored only one touchdown on the Hurricanes in two years. A year ago Ward was sacked seven times; the year before that, Seminole quarterback Casey Weldon was sacked five times.

Last week the Florida State coaches cured the offensive linemen of caving in by forcing them to watch the seven sacks of Ward on film after every meeting, every day. The result was that Ward was sacked only once on Saturday and had a few more seconds of protection—just enough time to connect on 21 of 31 passes for 256 yards with no interceptions. He succeeded under a typically relentless Miami rush, completing throws even in the grip of defenders. "My heart was in my stomach every time they snapped the ball," said Miami coach Dennis Erickson.

Indeed, the biggest difference between the two teams was in their quarterbacks. In comparison with Ward, who produced 450 yards of offense, the Hurricanes' Frank Costa was ineffectual. "He didn't look like the head man," said Abraham. Costa, who's a junior, had been hailed in Miami as the successor to last year's Heisman winner, Gino Torretta, but because of his inconsistency he is being pressed by Collins, who replaced him two weeks ago in a victory over Georgia Southern.

Costa accounted for Miami's lone touchdown against Florida State, a six-yard pass to running back Donnell Bennett in the first quarter, but he yielded a fumble and the Bush interception. Costa also seemed to have trouble with his checks at the line. In the third quarter he engineered a 16-play drive that ate up 8:06 and reached the Florida State six. But on third-and-goal Costa's audible just before the snap wasn't clear to his intended receiver, Bennett, who ran the wrong pattern, and Costa threw incomplete. The Hurricanes settled for Dane Prewitt's 23-yard field goal with 14:07 left. It would be their last score. "In the past we won with big plays," Costa said. "This time they didn't give them to us."

Bowden could take satisfaction in the knowledge that his assistant coaches outperformed their counterparts as well. Because the two teams' talent was, until this year, largely equal, blame for the Seminoles' last two losses to Miami had fallen on the kickers and the coaches. That was one reason for Bowden's decision, a week after last year's defeat, to turn over the bulk of the play-calling to his offensive coordinator, Brad Scott, an advocate of the no-huddle shotgun offense that suits Ward's talents so well. Since then Bowden has refused to wear a headphone—"So I don't try to change the calls," he said last week. A manager wearing a pair of phones follows Bowden around, informing him of each play. "Then he gets away from me," Bowden said.

Bowden was responsible, as always, for major decisions and the most innovative schemes, including the most startling play of the day—a direct snap to tailback Warrick Dunn instead of to Ward. Bowden had been imploring his staff all season to use the play, which is simply called "direct." On Friday he slapped his hand on the meeting table and said, "I want to see that danged direct."

Bowden got his wish toward the end of the first quarter, when the Seminoles faced third-and-seven at their own 43-yard line. Dunn took the angled snap and broke across the line for 27 yards to sustain the drive. It culminated in Ward's two-yard score, which gave Florida State a 21-7 lead.

For all their power, however, the Seminoles showed weaknesses. They were soft against the run, yielding 127 yards, which means they could be vulnerable to Notre Dame's ball-control attack. Miami held the ball for two lengthy drives: a 15-play, 5:56 march in the second period that came to nothing, and the 16-play, 8:06 marathon that ended with Prewitt's field goal. These efforts, though largely fruitless, suggested that the best way to beat Ward is to keep him off the field.

Still more worrisome for the Seminoles was the fact that they went nearly three quarters without scoring. Ward's touchdown run with 13:37 to go in the second quarter produced Florida State's last points until Bush's interception return, which came with 4:59 left in the game. The Seminoles did not sit on their 21 points by choice. Errors like Ward's fumble on the Miami 12 early in the third period—and the 11 penalties Florida State was assessed during the game—contributed. "There are a lot of points we could have had," Ward said. "We did some bad things and some good things. I'll take the victory."

In the Florida State locker room following the game, exuberance mingled with exhaustion. The Seminoles' season began on Aug. 28 with a victory over Kansas in the Kickoff Classic. It will not end until New Year's Day. Florida State had at last beaten Miami, but it was still early October. "After this season," Abraham said, "I think I'm going to sleep for two or three months."

PHOTOJOHN BIEVERWard's Heisman-worthy play included a two-yard TD scamper. TWO PHOTOSDAMIAN STROHMEYERCosta engineered two time-consuming drives but was forever fleeing Seminole defenders. PHOTOJOHN BIEVERWard escaped even a head-turning mask pull, and Frier eluded all Hurricanes on a TD catch. PHOTOAL TIELEMANSSeminole kicker Scott Bentley wasn't wide right—or left; his four PATs were true.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)