Nov. 12, 2011
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- When it's Florida State versus Miami, there are always some figurative on-field fireworks.
Saturday at Doak Campbell Stadium, the fireworks were literally in the sky too. After all, beating an in-state foe in one of the most entertaining and important rivalries in all of college football warrants a little early-evening post-game pyrotechnics.
In a 23-19, down-to-the-wire-once-again win over Miami, the Seminoles not only captured their second victory in as many years over the Hurricanes but they also put themselves in position to claim back-to-back state championships.
if that's not enough, the senior student-athletes that went to battle one last time in this yearly showdown will eventually leave Florida State knowing they beat Miami in three out of the four years of their collegiate playing careers.
"That's huge; three times ... wow," senior linebacker Nigel Bradham afterwards. "That's big. It feels good. I mean, to do that is big. Wow."
Bradham's reflection on his class' accomplishment was made possible despite some typical late-game nail-biting moments that have become such a prevalent storyline anytime that the 'Noles and 'Canes cross paths.
FSU led 23-7 with a little less a few minutes into the fourth quarter but the Hurricanes (5-5, 3-4 Atlantic Coast Conference) used two separate 80-yard scoring drives to trim it to a one-score game despite failing on a two-point conversion attempt on the first score and botching the snap on the extra-point try on the second.
Clinging to the 23-19 advantage with just 1:24 left, freshman tight end Nick O'Leary leapt into the air and snagged the onside kick attempt to secure the win for the Seminoles (7-3, 5-2), who have now triumphed in five consecutive ballgames.
O'Leary's clutch grab was one of several positive special teams plays that FSU made Saturday night in a series that is known more so for special-teams blunders than anything else. Dustin Hopkins converted three field goals and junior cornerback Greg Reid's 83-yard punt return late in the second quarter proved to be the momentum builder the 'Noles needed after a sloppy first half.
Senior Shawn Powell's 54.8 yards-per-punt average on five kicks can't be overlooked either.
"Special teams was huge for us," FSU head coach Jimbo Fisher said. "And then getting the onside kick and coverage. We covered very well on [Travis] Benjamin, whose a great returner. Shawn punted the heck out of that thing, boy."
Playing in his first game against Miami, EJ Manuel threw for 196 yards on 17-of-23 passing with one touchdown. His favorite target on the night was Christian Green, who hauled in four catches for 55 yards. Bert Reed also grabbed three passes for 45 yards and Rodney Smith had a 21-yard touchdown reception.
Devonta Freeman caught three passes of his own for 21 yards and ran the ball 16 times for 76 yards for a 'Noles team that finished the game with 259 yards of total offense.
Buoyed by those two 80-yard drives, Miami rung up 383 yards of offense behind Jacory Harris' 225 yards passing and Lamar Miller's 92 yards rushing.
Despite being ejected from the ballgame on Miami's final series for a questionably illegal hit, Bradham put a stamp on his final FSU-Miami contest with a game-best 10 tackles, half a tackle for loss, a fumble recovery and forced fumble. Greg Reid, Xavier Rhodes and Christian Jones each had five tackles apiece and Lamarcus Joyner had an interception.
Counting Bradham and Joyner's respective takeaways, the Seminoles forced three turnovers and didn't commit any of their own.
"That's the key; we didn't have turnovers and they had the turnovers," Fisher said. "We created turnovers and we didn't turn it over on ourself. Turnovers affect the game more than anything."
On the very first play from scrimmage it became apparent that this was going to be another crazy FSU versus Miami battle.
Mike Harris appeared to force a fumble by Benjamin that Joyner scooped up and scored from 31 yards away. But the review revealed that Benjamin never had control of the football and the points had to be removed from the scoreboard.
Later in the first quarter, Powell's beautifully booming punt down to the one-yard line still didn't stop Miami from moving down the field and into scoring position. But after making it all the way to the FSU 16-yard line, Joyner stepped in front of a Harris pass and intercepted the football in the endzone -- and this time it counted.
Powell's next punt may have not gone out of bounds near the goal line but it did go off the hands of Benjamin, who muffed the kick and it was recovered by Telvin Smith. The short field position was enough to allow Hopkins a 37-yard chip-shot attempt that he successfully sent through the uprights for a 'Noles' 3-0 lead with 45 seconds left in the first quarter.
If the first quarter was strange, the second started just as bizzarly. Reid fielded a punt on his own goal line and the lapse in judgement was compounded by a personal foul penalty that backed the 'Noles up against their own endzone.
A few plays later, it was ruled that FSU would be charged with a safety after Manuel's intentional grounding penalty was said to have taken place in the endzone. A review confirmed the call but after an additional lengthy delay the officials finally determined that it in fact was a dead ball at the one-yard line.
FSU had to punt because of the play and Miami capitalized with a short field that ended with a one-yard Harris to Clive Walford touchdown pass that gave UM a 7-3 lead midway through the second quarter.
On FSU's ensuing drive, the Seminoles registered their first first-down of the ballgame and it was a sign of good things to come. On third down, Manuel stood tall in the pocket and found the 6-foot-6 Smith for the leaping touchdown toss between two defenders.
If the home crowd found that exciting then they certainly liked what happened next. The defense did its job to force a punt and Reid caught the kick off the bounce, weaved between a few defenders and ran untouched into the endzone for the 83-yard return.
"He kind of shanked the kick a little bit and it took one hop and I grabbed it and I was just there," Reid said. "The whole field was just there and I just took it."
Reid's standout special teams play was the fourth-longest punt return in school history and it gave FSU a 17-7 lead. The Seminoles then had a chance to pad the advantage before the first-half clock expired but Hopkins missed a short field goal after Miami had fumbled in the final moments.
For as sloppy as the Seminoles played on offense in the first half -- and it was sloppy with just 77 yards gained on that side of the ball -- the first drive of the second half was anything but. FSU eclipsed its first-two-quarters output with an 83-yard drive that culminated with a 21-yard Hopkins field goal.
Hopkins' second field goal of the second half was then good from 38 yards out as FSU built a 23-7 with just over 11 minutes to play before Miami made its late push.
Florida State now closes out its home schedule with its ACC finale against Virginia this coming Saturday. Kickoff for that senior night/homecoming game will take place at 7:30 p.m. and will air live on ESPN2.