Florida State boots its title shot Errant last-second kick enables Miami to survive No. 1 test, ++ 17-16

November 17, 1991|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Sun Staff Correspondent

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Florida State coach Bobby Bowden thought the kick was good. He was running down the sideline, waving his players off the field, the record crowd cheering all around him yesterday at Doak Campbell Stadium.

Then Bowden stopped and turned around, his hat flying off and his headset tumbling to the ground, a look of confusion settling into his deep-set, hound-dog eyes. The Miami players had started their celebration on the other side of the field.

The crowd fell silent.

"What's going on?" Bowden asked anyone within earshot. "I thought it was good."

It wasn't. When sophomore kicker Gerry Thomas' 34-yard attempt with 25 seconds remaining squeezed just outside the right upright, joy turned into disbelief for the top-ranked Seminoles and delight for the second-ranked Hurricanes, who held on for a 17-16 victory.

The defeat broke a 16-game winning streak for Florida State (10-1), and likely ended the Seminoles' chances for a national championship. The victory, its sixth in the past seven years over Florida State, should give Miami (9-0) the No. 1 ranking and, by this afternoon, an invitation to the Federal Express Orange Bowl.

"I don't know if it hurts more than '87," Bowden said, recalling another one-point, last-minute defeat to the Hurricanes that cost the Seminoles a national championship. "It's not that I'm obsessed with the national championship. It just hurts to lose. A loss kills me."

As agonizing a defeat as it was for Florida State -- it marks the third time in the past five years that a loss to Miami ended the Seminoles' run at the title -- it was an improbable victory for the Hurricanes. Miami had won seven straight against No. 1 teams, but it seemed the streak would end there.

After taking a 7-0 lead on their opening possession, the Hurricanes didn't score for a stretch of 48 minutes. Florida State led by 10-7 at halftime and built its lead to 16-7 early in the fourth quarter on field goals of 31 and 20 yards by Thomas, a former walk-on who just recently was awarded a scholarship.

"They looked like they were happy just scoring field goals," said Miami defensive end Rusty Medearis, who spent most of the afternoon in the Florida State backfield and, more specifically, in Seminoles quarterback Casey Weldon's face. "I just thought that if we held them to field goals, we were going to win the game."

But Miami, which had blown a number of opportunities deep inside Florida State territory, still had to score itself. The Hurricanes pulled to within 16-10 on a 45-yard field goal by Carlos Huerta with a little under 10 minutes left. The kick came after Miami drove to the Seminoles' 13, only to be pushed back to the 27 on a penalty and a pair of sacks of quarterback Gino Torretta.

On that drive, the Hurricanes had also used two of their three timeouts for the half. Still, Miami figured that its defense -- ranked second nationally against the pass, and fourth overall -- would be able to stop the Seminoles again. It did, putting pressure on Weldon and taking over at its 42 with 7 minutes, 11 seconds remaining.

"I thought our defense played great," said Miami coach Dennis Erickson. "And they're a great defensive team, too. We were able to make the big plays when we needed to."

Perhaps the biggest play for Miami came after the Hurricanes moved down to the Florida State 12. On fourth-and six, Torretta ** found wide-out Horace Copeland on a 9-yard hitch route in front of Terrell Buckley, the Seminoles' All-America cornerback, for a 9-yard gain. Three plays later, tailback Larry Jones scored from a yard out with 3:10 left and Huerta's extra point gave Miami the lead.

"I was very confident about making that throw," said Torretta (14 of 27, 145 yards, two interceptions). "Terrell likes to jump out on that kind of pass. I prayed that he wasn't going to do that, and he didn't get a good jump on the ball. I knew we were going to score, but there was still a lot of time left."

And Florida State wasn't finished, at least not yet. After a touchback brought the ball back out to the 20, the Seminoles seemed content to eat up small chunks of yardage and large chunks of time. After using its last two timeouts, Florida State stayed alive when fullback Elmer Bennett gained 7 yards on fourth-and-one from the Miami 47.

The record crowd of 63,442 roared its approval when, on third-and-three from Miami's 33, Hurricanes cornerback Ryan McNeil was called for obvious interference on Florida State receiver Eric Turral in the end zone. On first down from the 18, Amp Lee carried to the left hash mark for 1 yard. On second down, Weldon spiked the ball into the ground. Then came Bowden's decision to send Thomas in on third down.

"We didn't have any timeouts left," said Bowden. "We could have thrown the ball, but if it's intercepted or takes a bad bounce, you'll be kicking yourself in the rear the rest of your life. I thought we made it. I thought we won the game. I don't blame him. I blame me. I blame us."

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