TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Good matchups don't always allow for good games, but Saturday's showdown between the No. 3 and 4 teams, a qualifying round for the New Year's Day championship game, produced an enormously satisfying bit of entertainment, as fun to watch as it was important to play.
The significance of the event, which barring any upsets could put the winner into the Orange Bowl, was dramatic underpinning enough. Miami and Florida State were both undefeated, both coming off blowout wins, both apparently unstoppable. The winner would get more than just the Sunshine State, bragging rights thereof. Given this, a record crowd of 62,561 would have gotten their money's worth with any kind of outcome.
But any kind wouldn't do on a brilliant, crisp afternoon. The teams, perhaps mindful of their showmanship responsibilities, conspired for a finish just this side of outrageous, Miami finally persevering for a 26-25 victory. It was decided in the last minute on a failed two-point conversion, Florida State going down blazing, feet in the air.
Florida State, some would say the deserving winner by virtue of its offensive dominance, had fought back from a series of kicking and passing errors to drive the length of the field in the final two minutes. The surprise was that the Seminoles, leading 19-3 late in the third quarter, would have to mount any heroics, at all. But there they were, down, 26-19, driving for their lives. Meanwhile, big-play Miami--its three touchdown plays (with two two-point conversions) in the last 17 minutes accounted for nearly half of its offense--became absolutely porous as Danny McManus completed some sensational passes. Dexter Carter leaped between two defenders to pull in a 31-yard pass in the drive; Ronald Lewis caught an 18-yarder in the corner of the end zone to cap it.
Then came the final-minute dramatics as Florida State appeared to be going for a tie by sending in its troubled kicker, but recalled him and decided to go for the victory. This seemed fair, since Miami had been gambling all afternoon. But this two-point conversion try, a soft pass sent out to Pat Carter, was easily batted down by Miami's Bubba McDowell.
The second-guessing began immediately.
Florida State Coach Bobby Bowden said later there hadn't been much question what he'd do in such a situation. He had lost a 10-9 game at Miami in 1980, going for two, and he had vowed never to do it again. "I told my people we'd go for one if it ever happened again," he said.
But kicker Derek Schmidt had been having a calamitous afternoon. Normally perfect--he was 9 of 10 previously this season--Schmidt had already missed two short field goals (29 and 25 yards) and an extra point. "I was afraid it would happen again," Bowden said. "And that wind was coming across the field, and I was afraid it was driving him crazy. If he had missed just one (kick), OK. But he missed three. I wasn't sure it was over for him yet. So sure enough, we go for two."
A tie game would have been unfair to Miami, which had gone for the two points twice, which had rallied from seemingly impossible circumstances to go ahead. Here's how impossible: Miami wide receiver Michael Irvin, who caught two of Steve Walsh's three touchdown passes, remembered the Seminoles' brash All-American cornerback, Deion Sanders, advising him to ease up, party's over. "I put a pretty good block on him, and he tells me to stop blocking him so hard, the game's over. I told him, 'We're Hurricanes, we never quit. We're gonna brawl all night.' "
It seemed fitting, in a state that legalized the carrying of handguns Thursday, that one of the Florida teams would shoot itself in the foot. Florida State, which seemed to have so much more firepower, was the team that should have kept the safety on.
Aside from Schmidt's kicking gaffes, there were an interception and a fumble, both leading to fourth-quarter Miami scores. McManus, who would end up passing for 201 yards, intended a screen pass and threw right into the arms of lineman Danny Stubbs. "A pretty pitiful play on my part," McManus agreed.
Five plays later, sophomore Walsh, who was Testaverdian with 254 yards passing, scored with a 26-yard pass to Irvin. Late in the fourth quarter, Florida State was on the Miami 16 when a fumbled snap went forward through the line into safety Bennie Blades' arms. Four plays later, Walsh and Irvin combined on a 73-yard pass play for Miami's go-ahead score.
That's how it went for Florida State, which amassed 426 yards on offense to Miami's 306. This was a stunning statistic. In its two wins this year, Miami had allowed a total of 429 yards. Its defense had allowed just one touchdown. Florida State, which had been averaging 39 points and nearly 500 yards on offense in its four victories, actually beat Miami for more yardage than that. But a botched field goal try, when the snap hit an unaware holder in the shoulder and traveled 51 yards thataway, cost them that much yardage.