No. 1 BY ONE - Sports Illustrated Vault |
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No. 1 BY ONE

In a battle of unbeatens, Miami dashed Florida State's national championship hopes with a thrilling 17-16 win

On a Mid-November day that had a first-of-January feel to it, in a national championship game masquerading as a matchup between intrastate rivals, Miami quarterback Gino Torretta spent nearly 53 minutes as a hero in goat's clothing.

He finally changed costumes with just over seven minutes to play in last Saturday's game in Tallahassee between Florida State, which was ranked No. 1, and No. 2 Miami. The Seminoles led 16-10 at the time, and it seemed as if several geological epochs had passed since the Hurricanes had scored their only touchdown, on their first possession of the first quarter. Torretta found the moment ripe for a bit of motivational speaking.

"Dig deep in your hearts," he said in the huddle. By that point Torretta had been intercepted twice, sacked five times and generally forced to spend the afternoon dashing around like a stray dog in rush hour traffic. Torretta's plea was his way of asking Miami's linemen to hold their blocks, for a change.

To begin the drive on which the entire college football season turned, Torretta dropped back, peered downfield...and was sacked a sixth time. There are times you would swear that the Hurricanes' mascot, Sebastian the Ibis, is more elusive than its quarterback. But the sack got Torretta's juices flowing. Thereafter, Torretta, an unheralded junior from Pinole, Calif., did some things worthy of Miami's lofty quarterback tradition: He marched the Hurricanes 58 yards for the game-winning touchdown. Two-and-a-half minutes later, a last-gasp Florida State field goal attempt sailed wide to the right, sealing a 17-16 win for the Hurricanes, probably locking up the national championship for Miami and causing a blessed cessation of the Seminole fans' monotonous, politically incorrect Scalp 'em! cheer.

It was a fittingly dramatic finale to the Brawl That Would Tell All, a match so noteworthy that at midweek Florida State coach Bobby Bowden had said, "This game will be bigger than any bowl we'll get into"; so important that Wayne Hogan, the Seminoles' publicist, had earned the moniker Manute because he had been so busy rejecting more than 200 requests (out of a total of 700) for media credentials, including pleas from MTV and The Wall Street Journal; so huge that it turned New Year's Day 1992 into an anticlimax.

How can the bowls top the Brawl? They can't. The Hurricanes now face a smooth ride to their fourth national title in eight years. Only overmatched Boston College and San Diego State remain on Miami's regular-season schedule, and the Hurricanes' opponent in the Orange Bowl will be either Nebraska or Colorado, neither of which is likely to end the season ranked in the Top 10. Frankly, if it isn't from Florida, Miami isn't afraid of it.

The Seminoles must regroup for their Nov. 30 date in Gainesville against 9-1 Florida, which has clinched the Southeastern Conference title. Florida State must also cope with the letdown of having to settle for the Cotton Bowl, where spanking Texas A&M, the probable Southwest Conference champion, will provide cold comfort for Saturday's loss. For the fourth time in five years, the Hurricanes have cost Florida State a national crown—virtually the only achievement in the college game still eluding Bowden after 26 years of coaching.

Bowden has said that he is not "obsessed" with winning a national title, but neither was he pretending that this latest failure doesn't rankle. Indeed, this was supposed to be a Seminole season. Florida State features nine senior starters and junior All-America cornerback Terrell Buckley, who may enter April's NFL draft. Among the seniors are quarterback Casey Weldon and fullback Edgar Bennett, two thirds of the Seminoles' splendid backfield. "We feel this is our year," said linebacker Kirk Carruthers two days before that notion was disproved. "We want the '90s to be the Decade of the Seminoles." They are off to a poor start.

On the other hand, the word on the Hurricanes earlier this season was: Better get 'em this year. Miami is a hugely talented team made up primarily of sophomores and juniors. Even folks in the athletic department had described the Hurricanes as being "a year away." Either no one told the players, or they refused to listen. Says sophomore defensive end Rusty Medearis, "There's so much talent down here, we'd be fools not to think we can win every game on our schedule."

Late Saturday afternoon it was difficult to argue with a gracious but grimacing Bowden when he said, "We're about as even as two teams could be. They made one more big play than we did. The difference was one play. Take your choice."

Take, for instance, the Seminoles' final play, a 34-yard field goal attempt by sophomore Gerry Thomas. His kick had plenty of leg, but no eyes—it floated a foot or so outside the right upright. Except for that failed attempt, Thomas had a fine day, nailing an extra point and three field goals, from 25, 31 and 20 yards, in three tries. "Unfortunately," he said, exhibiting a wisdom beyond his 20 years, "it's the last one they remember."

After the game Buckley told Thomas to go easy on himself. "They scored touchdowns, we got field goals," he said. "Basically, that was the problem." Those field goals were a clear indication of the trouble that the Florida State offense, which had averaged 41.4 points a game before Saturday, had against Miami. The Hurricanes were the first opponents the Seminoles faced this season who could stay with them, stride for stride. Florida State's Bennett and Amp Lee combined for a quiet 130 rushing yards on 27 attempts, with most of those yards coming on draws and delays up the middle. Sweeps against the Miami defense proved to be exercises in futility—Leroy Burrell would have had trouble turning the corner against this Hurricane unit. Five defensive backs run sub-4.5 40s. The three starting linebackers each run better than 4.6—Darrin Smith runs a 4.42. Miami's defensive linemen are as fast as its linebackers, which most of them were before they arrived in Coral Gables and were issued these instructions: 1) Gain weight; 2) don't lose speed.

The Seminoles' lone touchdown of the day was set up not by their high-powered offense but by a couple of guys named Ostaszewski. Late in the first quarter nose-guard Joe stripped Hurricane fullback Stephen McGuire of the ball, at which juncture defensive end Henry—Joe's identical twin and his elder by seven minutes—gathered in the fumble on the Miami 24-yard line. Five plays later fullback Paul Moore barreled over right guard to give Florida State a 10-7 lead.

Before McGuire could begin stewing over his costly turnover, Miami coach Dennis Erickson pulled him aside. "Make it up to your teammates by running even harder," said Erickson. That's a tall order for McGuire, a no-frills brute of a back from the mean streets of Brooklyn's East New York section, who runs hard every time because, as he says, "it's my only style." By the end of the Brawl, McGuire had ground out 142 yards on 22 carries, most of them between the tackles. His helmet looked as though it had been tied to the bumper of a car and dragged down a stretch of bad road.

"I took it upon myself to pick up the slack," said McGuire. "Gino wasn't getting much time to throw." Gino never has in Florida State's Doak Campbell Stadium. Two years ago, as a quaking redshirt freshman starting in place of an injured Craig Erickson, Torretta threw an interception on his first pass. For an encore he threw three more to the wrong color jerseys in the first half. The Hurricanes lost 24-10 to the Seminoles that day.

Since that nightmarish outing, Torretta is 12-1 as a starter. While less flashy than his millionaire predecessors at the position—Bernie Kosar, Jim Kelly, Vinny Testaverde and Steve Walsh—Torretta has plenty going for him. He has coach Erickson's complex one-back system down cold, and he can air the ball out, the better to hook up with Miami's breathtaking batch of wide receivers, the self-styled Ruthless Posse. And Torretta's play this season has been characterized by the sort of caution that only a loan officer—or a football coach—could love. If he can't find a safe throw, he throws the ball away.

Usually. On Saturday, blanket coverage and a ferocious Florida State pass rush rendered the Ruthless Posse toothless. When Thomas kicked his final field goal on the first play of the fourth quarter, the Seminoles had a 16-7 lead and Miami was in serious trouble. Not only was its passing game in shambles, but also because the Hurricane offensive linemen were being outplayed by Florida State's defensive front, McGuire had to earn much of his yardage by himself. On Miami's first possession of the final quarter, McGuire tore off runs of five, 27 and eight yards, all but single-handedly setting up Carlos Huerta's 45-yard field goal, which brought the Hurricanes to within six points.

The story of how Miami closed that gap is also the story of how Torretta exorcised the demons of 1989 and relegated the Seminoles, yet again, to the role of bridesmaid. It bears a closer look:

First-and-10 on the Miami 42-yard line: Carruthers, who seems to save his best games for the Hurricanes, comes up the middle and rings up his third sack of the afternoon.

Second-and-14: Torretta takes a three-step drop and looks left for tight end Coleman Bell, who, to Torretta's dismay, is tightly covered by cornerback Errol McCorvey. "Usually he's wide open," Torretta said later. Torretta had no choice but to parachute a dangerous 20-yard pass into Bell's outstretched hands. Twenty-one-yard gain.

First-and-10 on the Florida State 41: McGuire gets a tough eight around left end.

Second-and-two: McGuire exploits a splendid block on one inside linebacker by left tackle Leon Searcy, sheds the other inside linebacker and chews off 17 yards.

A short McGuire run sandwiched between incomplete passes leaves the Hurricanes with a fourth-and-six at the Seminoles' 12. Torretta's call is a quick hitch pass to wide receiver Horace (High C) Copeland on the right sideline. "Make sure you get deep enough for the first," Torretta tells Copeland in the huddle. "Buckley's going to hit you as soon as you catch the ball."

High C, so nicknamed because of his leaping ability—he cleared seven feet as a high jumper at Maynard Evans High in Orlando, Fla.—runs nine yards, stops, makes what is for him a modest leap and latches on to Torretta's slightly high pass. As predicted, he is immediately manhandled by Buckley, who, to Torretta's surprise and delight, had been playing some 10 yards off the line of scrimmage.

Why was Buckley so deep with the Hurricanes so close? He was obeying orders, playing a nice, safe zone. "I should have put him in bump-and-run," Seminole defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews said later. "But I didn't want to risk putting the other [defensive backs] in bump."

First-and-goal on the Florida State three: McGuire picks up a yard.

Second-and-goal: Ditto.

Third-and-goal on the one: Erickson gives his fullback of the future, redshirt freshman Larry Jones, a crack at tying the game. Jones breaks the plane of the goal line with the nose of the ball—that's all.

But that was all the Hurricanes needed: The touchdown and Huerta's extra point gave them the lead.

Scant moments later, having missed his crucial field goal attempt, Thomas squatted on the sideline, gazing straight ahead. Weldon paced in front of the bench, softly saying, "Oh god," over and over. Seminole tight end Warren Hart lay on his stomach nearby, moaning.

Bowden simply couldn't believe his run of bad luck. "We had a one-point loss to them in '80, a one-point loss in '83, one point loss in '87, one point loss today," he said when it was all over.

If Bowden seemed to be at a loss for a suitable explanation, the Hurricanes' Smith, the world's fastest linebacker, had one at the ready. "Hey, you've got to know how to win big games," said Smith. "We do."



Carruthers (45) couldn't stop Jones (23) from scoring the decisive touchdown.



Copeland (left) beat Buckley for this fourth-down catch on Miami's final drive, while Ryan McNeil's interfering with Eric Turral set up the Seminoles' vain last-gasp field goal try.



[See caption above.]



Tailback Darryl Spencer was sent flying after pulling in one of Torretta's 14 completions.



Thomas's only miss of the day (top) reduced a pair of hefty Hurricanes to tears of joy.