3:30 PM ET, November 29, 2003
Florida Field, GAINESVILLE, FL
GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) -- They played for 3½ hours and brawled for a few minutes more.
All the good and bad college football had to offer was on display Saturday at The Swamp. When it was over, No. 9 Florida State walked away with the 38-34 win and No. 11 Florida left crestfallen, wondering if maybe one had been stolen away.
P.K. Sam will go down in history for the twisting, whirling, falling-down pass route he ran to make the game-winning, 52-yard touchdown catch with 55 seconds left.
The day, however, will be remembered for much more -- including a postgame melee at midfield that police used pepper spray to break up, and a series of officials' calls, ranging from questionable to awful, that will have Gators fans howling for years.
Florida State (10-2) reached 10 victories for the first time since 2000. Florida (8-4) had its five-game winning streak halted, along with its slim hopes of making it to the Southeastern Conference title game.
Neither team will forget this classic soon.
"It's my 28th game playing the University of Florida, and I don't think I've seen a better one than that," Seminoles coach Bobby Bowden said.
Sam's touchdown catch might have been the play of the year for Florida State, which has won five of six against its bitter rival.
Going long, Sam turned to his right at about the 20, but didn't see Chris Rix's high, hanging pass. So, Sam spun left, spotted the ball, then pushed right against Florida defender Guss Scott in the end zone, where he made the catch while falling backward. It was Rix's third touchdown pass. He also ran for a score and improved to 2-1 against the Gators.
"I think DBs kind of give up after about 40 yards," Sam said. "I looked up, the ball was in the air. I was like, `Please catch this,' and I held on and that was it."
Unfortunately, the emotions of the great game caught up with the players: When the Seminoles went to midfield to celebrate the win, they were greeted by the Gators, who didn't appreciate them jumping on their "F" at midfield.
Punches were thrown, helmets went flying.
"Guys started pushing and jumping, and things just went crazy," Florida linebacker Channing Crowder said.
Gators athletic director Jeremy Foley and FSU sports information director Rob Wilson jumped in the middle to separate the 100-or-so players, and police used pepper spray to disperse them.
"I have no idea what happened," said Florida coach Ron Zook, who was leaving the field when the fight started. "But I promise you, if our guys were involved, we'll get it straightened out."
There were no immediate reports on injuries from the fight. And hopefully, once tempers settle, this game will be remembered more for the show on the field than what happened afterward.
The lead changed hands four times in the fourth quarter. With 2:55 left, Florida went ahead 34-31 on Ben Troupe's 26-yard touchdown catch from Chris Leak in the back of the end zone. Troupe got one foot down; the official stared hard at the play, and initially brought his arms to the side, as though he were going to call it incomplete.
But he raised his hands to signal a touchdown, one of the few calls that went Florida's way on a day that will surely not grade out well for referee Jack Childress' ACC officiating crew.
The crew made at least three questionable calls on fumbles -- calling players down when they weren't or vise versa -- and absolutely blew at least two more, including giving Seminoles tailback Leon Washington credit for a fumble recovery near the Florida goal line even though Crowder sprinted out of the pile with the ball.
Crowder spiked the ball and drew a personal foul while many in the crowd chanted obscenities at the refs.
Bowden played it coy when asked about the calls.
"I sure do like them when they go to me," he said.
Zook and Foley took the high road, but a handful of the Gators who felt this game was stolen from them weren't so gracious.
The referees left the field with a police escort, and debris rained down.
"They deserved it. They called a bad game," Florida offensive lineman Shannon Snell said.
Surely, the game will be debated for years, although there's no changing the result. The Seminoles beat their first ranked opponent this year and will go into their BCS bowl on a high.
The Gators, meanwhile, won't make it to the SEC title game. Tennessee's win over Kentucky made it almost impossible, and Florida's loss ended all hope. Florida still has a chance to make it to Atlanta, on Jan. 2, if Peach Bowl representatives offer them a bid, as expected.
Rix threw for 256 yards, Dominic Robinson caught five passes for 102 yards, and linebacker Pat Watkins returned a fumble 25 yards for a touchdown to tie the game at 24 late in the third quarter.
Troupe caught two touchdowns and finished with 121 yards receiving for Florida. Leak threw for 273 yards and caught a 30-yard pass from Andre Caldwell on a trick play. Cornerback Keiwan Ratliff scooped up a fumble and went 77 yards for his fourth touchdown of the season and a 24-17 lead.
The fight, meanwhile, was unfortunate, but not unprecedented. The biggest difference is that it came after the game instead of before, as happened a few times in the late 1990s.
The officials didn't do much to decrease the tension. They got things going on the opening kickoff, when they ruled FSU returner Antonio Cromartie down, even though it looked like his knee hadn't hit before he fumbled and the Gators recovered.
ACC observer Earnest Benson declined comment on the calls, but said games are reviewed weekly by the league. The ACC's director of officials probably won't like what he sees from his guys when he gets this tape, although he certainly will get to watch a great game.