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He was the last player to leave the field, as if expecting
another chance. USC junior defensive back Daylon McCutcheon
paced from one side of the Los Angeles Coliseum to the other and
then back again last Saturday night, letting his
cardinal-and-gold helmet dangle from his right hand. "They
thought they were going to come in here and blow us out," said
McCutcheon. "We knew that wouldn't happen." He wheeled on his
cleats and started back across the grass, trying to kill the
frustration of a 14-7 loss to Florida State by walking it to
death. Losing stinks, but in reaching for some small
consolation, McCutcheon sent a message to the mighty: You want
to stomp somebody in September? Play Akron. Otherwise, all bets
are off.

Tennessee would understand, the Volunteers having just survived
a wild UCLA comeback two hours earlier and 12 miles north at the
Rose Bowl. Colorado and Notre Dame would understand, having
barely escaped that afternoon against Colorado State and Georgia
Tech, respectively. In a twisted way Florida would understand
best of all. True, the Gators thrashed overmatched Central
Michigan 82-6, but only after a season-opening 21-6 win the week
before over solid Southern Mississippi. Preordained early-season
massacres are slowly giving way to dangerous intersectional
matches, prompted by television executives who smell putrid
ratings for guaranteed blowouts and by athletic directors who
fear empty seats. Florida State scheduled USC years ago, but
their meeting typifies this sort of early-season contest. Wins
are earned, not ensured.

This would have been a good year for Florida State to open with
Duke, as it has in three of the last five seasons, with an
average winning margin of six touchdowns. The Seminoles lost to
Florida in last year's national championship game 52-20, then
watched four players depart for the NFL, all of them
first-rounders who started immediately. The baggage Florida
State took west included a roster on which nearly half of the
players were either true or redshirt freshmen; three new
starters on the offensive line; a running back, Dee Feaster, who
was replacing both the brilliant Warrick Dunn, one of the NFL
first-rounders, and Rock Preston, who had been expected to
succeed Dunn but who was declared academically ineligible last
spring; and a series of arrests and disciplinary actions
affecting nine other players.

"People have told me that we don't rebuild here anymore, now we
reload," Florida State coach Bobby Bowden said in the week
before the USC game, invoking language first applied to the
Texas powerhouses of the 1960s. "I don't know if I believe that.
But if we win this game, then I'll believe it."

Among the many issues facing Florida State, the off-field
missteps are what can most quickly damage the Seminoles, in both
image and performance. Some of the incidents have been minor (a
bounced check for, according to Florida State officials, $17;
underage drinking) and others serious (burglary, aggravated
battery). Rare is the college football team that doesn't have
players with rap sheets, but in light of the notorious Foot
Locker shopping spree of 1993, Florida State is under more
scrutiny than many programs, and Bowden, a head coach for 32
years, finds himself watched as never before. "There was a time
when a coach might have been able to sweep something under the
rug, keep it within the team," Bowden says. "That's not possible
anymore." He drifts toward an Osbornesque paternal affection
when discussing his accused players. "I can't tell you how angry
his parents are," he says of senior defensive tackle Julian
Pittman, who has been charged with burglary and fraudulent use
of a credit card.

Florida State's off-field troubles have thinned a roster already
in transition. Pittman and backup safety Sean Key (charged with
aggravated battery stemming from a fraternity party fight)
missed the USC game and could miss others while awaiting court
dates. Starting cornerback Mario Edwards and backup strong
safety Robert Hammond were dismissed from the team; Edwards was
charged with petty theft, and Hammond was charged with
possession of marijuana. "People keep asking how all our
suspensions affect me," says Daryl Bush, the Seminoles'
saxophone-playing, poetry-writing, straight-A, grad-student
linebacker. "Starters missing, that's how it affects me."

Nursing these various pains, Florida State found itself entwined
with a USC team that went just 6-6 a year ago and saved coach
John Robinson's job only with a season-ending victory over Notre
Dame. But the Trojans have enough talent in the right
places--chiefly rush linebacker Chris Claiborne and corners
McCutcheon and Brian Kelly--to bedevil a team in search of an
early-season rhythm, like Florida State. Seminoles quarterback
Thad Busby tried repeatedly to throw deep over Kelly, without
success. Kelly kept up a stream of chatter. "How do you like
that? How do you like that?" he chirped at Florida State wideout
Peter Warrick after blanketing him on one streak pattern. "That
made me mad, but those corners were everything they were
supposed to be," said Warrick. USC held Florida State to seven
points in nearly 50 minutes of play, and the score was still 7-7
early in the fourth quarter.

But while the Seminoles were stymied on offense, their defense
was sensational. At times it hardly seemed to matter that
All-America defensive ends Peter Boulware and Reinard Wilson,
who terrorized opponents a year ago, are now in the NFL. Florida
State gave up only 184 yards in total offense, including 25
yards on the ground. USC's only touchdown came after Florida
State freshman punter Keith Cottrell dropped a snap and had his
desperation kick blocked, giving the Trojans possession at the
Seminoles' 30. At the core of Florida State's domination were
end Andre Wadsworth and linebacker Sam Cowart.

Wadsworth was the nosetackle a year ago, doing the weekly dirty
work, occupying multiple blockers while Boulware and Wilson
piled up the sacks. Now it's his turn, and in his first game at
his new spot, he twice sacked quarterback John Fox. "You've got
to be tough as nails inside," said Wadsworth, "but it's an honor
to play outside."

If off-field embarrassments are part of Florida State's story,
so is the fact that Wadsworth, like Bush, has already earned his
undergraduate degree and is taking 15 hours of graduate courses
in sports management. What's more, this youngest of seven
children born to Lylith and Andrew Wadsworth in St. Croix,
Virgin Islands, not only secured tickets for 27 friends and
family members (his father is from Los Angeles), but also joined
them all for dinner on Friday at the team's hotel in Newport

Cowart ripped his knee apart in the 1996 Orange Bowl and hadn't
played again until Saturday. Three days before the game, he sat
on a couch in Tallahassee, his left leg stretched out, decorated
with two long, shiny scars carved by surgeons who repaired two
torn ligaments. "I can't wait to run through a tunnel and listen
to a crowd again," Cowart said. Against USC, he made a game-high
10 tackles, hearing the crowd with every one. "It was everything
I'd hoped for," he said.

Despite this defensive dominance, Florida State nearly lost. At
7-7 with 13:28 to play, the Seminoles took possession on their
own three. Senior center Kevin Long barged into the huddle and
challenged his teammates, asking, "Y'all ready to go 97 yards or
not?" On the second play, Busby threw a pass smack into Kelly's
hands--a certain USC touchdown--at the Florida State 12. Kelly
dropped the ball. Seven plays and five Busby completions later,
Feaster scored from three yards out to put Florida State ahead.
Two more Trojan drives were turned back before the Seminoles
could escape from L.A., and before Bowden could measure the
difficulty of the win and backpedal a bit.

"As far as reloading goes," he said, drenched with sweat in his
dressing room, "I believe that one is still in question."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT BECK California Steamin' USC may have lost to Florida State, but the Trojans never lost their cool (page 62). [Football players near fans on sideline--T of C]

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY PETER READ MILLER Although he passed for 276 yards, Busby frequently found himself under siege by the Trojans. [Thad Busby being sacked]

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY PETER READ MILLER Florida State's heads-up defensive play kept R. Jay Soward (18) and his USC mates off balance. [R. Jay Soward and others in game]

COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK Damian Harrell kept his shirt and the ball on this 26-yard pass play to set up the Seminoles' winning TD. [Damian Harrell and opposing player in game]