Commentary

Canes edge Noles in ACC thriller

Originally Published: September 7, 2009
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Florida State and Miami, which had staged one of college football's greatest rivalries before both programs fell on hard times in recent years, had gone back and forth for nearly four hours Monday night at Doak Campbell Stadium.

With about two minutes to play, the No. 18 Seminoles held a tenuous 34-31 lead, and the Hurricanes were driving down the field once again.

[+] EnlargeJacory Harris
Doug Benc/Getty ImagesJacory Harris threw for 386 yards and two TDs against the Noles.

As sophomore quarterback Jacory Harris prepared to take a snap on second-and-5 from the FSU 43, he shook his right hand while surveying the defense.

The middle finger and pinkie on Harris' right hand were numb.

With 11:45 left in the fourth quarter, Harris had been hit by FSU freshman Greg Reid as he tried to throw a pass. The ball popped into the air and was intercepted by FSU defensive end Markus White, who returned it 31 yards for a touchdown. When Harris went to the Miami sideline, his right arm was numb from finger tips to shoulder.

Now, Harris was preparing to leave much of the sellout crowd of 81,077 fans numb for the next several days.

With the game's outcome still in doubt, Harris lofted a long pass to receiver Travis Benjamin, who beat two FSU defenders for a 40-yard gain to the FSU 3. Graig Cooper ran into the end zone on the next play to give Miami a 38-34 lead with 1:53 to play.

Fittingly, the Seminoles drove down the field in the closing minutes and reached Miami's 12-yard line with 36 seconds left. The Seminoles had five cracks at the end zone but couldn't get closer than the 2. Miami won the game 38-34 after FSU receiver Jarmon Fortson dropped Christian Ponder's pass in the end zone as time expired.

As officials reviewed the final play to make sure Fortson didn't catch the ball, Ponder sank to one knee near the FSU sideline. Fortson pleaded with any teammate who would listen, telling them, "I had it."

A few minutes later, referee Jeff Flanagan told the crowd, "After further review, the call on the field is confirmed. It was an incomplete pass. Time expired. The ballgame is over."

Did it really have to end?

After so long, Florida State and Miami staged one of the great games we've been waiting years to witness again. During the 1980s and '90s, the FSU-Miami game decided which team would play for -- and often win -- college football's national championship. The Hurricanes won five national titles from 1983 to 2001; the Seminoles finished No. 1 in 1993 and '99 -- and probably would have won many more if they hadn't played Miami during the regular season.

When the Hurricanes joined the Seminoles in the ACC before the 2004 season, the league ignored geography and placed them in opposite divisions. ACC commissioner John Swofford dreamed of FSU-Miami matchups in the ACC championship game, with the winner moving on to play for BCS national titles and the loser still playing in lucrative BCS bowls.

Five years later, Swofford (and the rest of college football, for that matter) is still waiting for it to happen. FSU won its 12th ACC championship in 2005, the only time it won the Atlantic Division since the conference split into two divisions. Miami has been worse since joining the ACC, finishing third or lower in the Coastal Division in four of its first five seasons in the league.

[+] EnlargeRandy Shannon
AP Photo/Phil CoaleRandy Shannon liked what he saw from the Hurricanes.

Finally, after an opening weekend the ACC would as soon forget (before Monday night, its teams had beaten one Football Bowl Subdivision opponent -- Clemson defeated Middle Tennessee State 37-14 -- and two teams had lost to lesser Football Championship Subdivision foes), Miami and FSU played a game that will be remembered for the rest of the season and perhaps seasons to come.

"This is one of the all-timers," Miami coach Randy Shannon said. "I mean, goal-line stands, both teams had great kickoff returners, both teams threw the ball. It was one of the [games] you put up there."

This game was good. It was really, really good. It was nearly as good as watching Boise State pull off a hook-and-lateral and Statue of Liberty against Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl. It was almost as good as watching Vince Young run into the end zone to beat USC in the 2006 Rose Bowl to win the national championship.

It didn't feel like a season opener. More than anything else, though, it was how Florida State and Miami are supposed to play.

"It's what you really look forward to when you play Florida State," Shannon said. "For some reason, the last couple of years it always comes down to the last play of the game, the last minute, which is good for the ACC and good for TV. It's an opportunity for each school to showcase what the state of Florida has as far as athletes and also how far both teams have come through a lot of adverse situations and difficult times."

The game featured lightning-fast athletes like the ones we grew accustomed to watching when FSU and Miami played. There were goal-line stands, big passing plays, big hits and even a missed extra point that momentarily rekindled memories of FSU's infamous errant kicks in this storied series.

Afterward, FSU coach Bobby Bowden compared the loss to heart-wrenching defeats to Miami in 1987, when the Hurricanes knocked down FSU's two-point pass in the final minute of a 26-25 victory, and to Notre Dame in 1993, when the No. 2 Fighting Irish beat the No. 1 Seminoles 31-24.

Monday night's loss to Miami seemed to disappoint Bowden, 79, as much as any defeat before.

[+] EnlargeChristian Ponder
Paul Abell/US PresswireChristian Ponder and FSU came up just short in their final drive.

"This one here was probably the next greatest football [game] I've seen, and we've lost," Bowden said. "We had a chance to win it, we had a chance to win, but couldn't come up with the ball."

The game came down to one final play because both teams refused to quit. FSU didn't quit after Harris found Benjamin with less than two minutes to go, and the Hurricanes refused to quit when FSU reached their 2-yard line in the final seconds.

Miami could have quit when it fell behind 23-14 late in the third quarter, and it never blinked after White returned his interception to give the Seminoles a 31-24 lead.

"I'm so proud of everyone on our team because we fought and overcame so much adversity," Miami offensive tackle Jason Fox said. "We overcame so much tonight as far as lead changes, penalties and mistakes. It's exciting. But we didn't win the Super Bowl tonight, and this is only the first step."

If the Hurricanes and Seminoles continue to play as well as they did Monday night, chances are they both will win a lot more games this season. And maybe they will face each other again in the ACC title game.

Both teams are better because they finally have capable quarterbacks. Ponder threw for a career-high 294 yards with two touchdowns. Harris, who split time with departed Robert Marve last season, threw for 386 yards after failing to pass for 200 in any game last season.

"Jacory is a really level-headed guy," Fox said. "I've yet to see him feel pressure or get nervous in the huddle. He took control and led us into the end zone."

Florida State and Miami might not be what they once were. Both teams will have to address shortcomings on defense and special teams, but the talent seems to be there to fix those problems. FSU will have to run the football better than it did against Miami and will have to do a better job of pressuring the quarterback.

In the end, Miami won the game.

But college football was really the big winner.

FSU and Miami, two of the sport's traditional powers, are relevant again.

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.

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