“It’s a heartache. Nothing but a heartache. Hits you when it’s too late. Hits you when you’re down. It’s a fool’s game. Nothing but a fool’s game. Standing in the cold rain. Feeling like a clown.”
Driving away from the Orange Bowl mid-October of 2002—the exhaustion a comeback, dodging of a bullet and overall thrill of victory all that washed over as winning ways continued and the defending champs lived to see another day.
The top-ranked Miami Hurricanes trailed the Florida State Seminoles, 27-14 early in the fourth quarter but put together two memorable scoring drives and survived a missed game-winning field goal attempt, remaining undefeated en route to a second consecutive title game appearance.
For the Hurricanes, another case of business-as-usual—like so many showdowns during that 34-game win-streak. There were some blowouts, but also some battles and even more trying than surviving at Boston College and Virginia Tech the year prior, Florida State gave Miami the scare of the era and has had to live with the “what ifs” ever since.
A dozen years later, it’s Miami turn to feel the sting of defeat and forever replay one that got away. Another scenario with a defending champion, a win-streak, a team that finds a way and an underdog who raised hell, fell short and came as close as one can without prevailing.
MIAMI v. FLORIDA STATE … AND THEY’RE OFF
The Hurricanes forced a three-and-out on the Seminoles’ opening drive, but tight end Clive Walford coughed up a would-be 24-yard gain on Miami’s first play from scrimmage and Florida State was back in business.
Still, a once-maligned defense made another stand, regained possession and applied the pressure by way of the ground game featuring Duke Johnson and Joe Yearby, before two huge throws from Brad Kaaya to Phillip Dorsett, going for 36 and 27 yards—the latter resulting in a touchdown. Nine plays, 83 yards and the Canes appeared to have a remedy.
Another three-and-out for Florida State and Miami went right back to work—Kaaya finding Stacy Coley for 22 yards and then back to Walford, who atoned for his earlier turnover with a 22-yard gain of his own.
Dorsett reeled in an 18-yarder before Johnson eventually punched it in on 3rd-and-Goal from the one and after a Michael Badgley PAT was blocked, the Canes led, 13-0 late first quarter—rolling, but still having left points on the field that would come back to haunt.
Miami’s special teams responded a play later with Deon Bush forcing a fumble on the return, recovered by Corn Elder. The Hurricanes went back to work, but had a third-down conversion negated by an illegal formation and facing a 3rd-and-11 had to settled for a 45-yard field goal, which Badgley drilled and the Canes were up, 16-0.
Dalvin Cook tore off a 44-yard touchdown run the ensuing possession, putting Florida State on the board and seemingly returning some early momentum, but Walford snatched it back with a 61-yard touchdown reception and showstopper of his own, outrunning a handful of speed Seminoles defenders to paydirt.
Back on the field after a two-minute break, again the Miami defense rose up, holding Florida State to 50 yards on nine plays and forcing a 43-yard Roberto Aguayo field goal.
Up 23-10 with 8:10 in the half, the Hurricanes got back after it—a steady diet of Johnson and Yearby, including a 22-yard pass to Johnson on 3rd-and-4 from the Florida State 41-yard line—this on the heels of going for it on 4th-and-1 three plays prior and Johnson moving the chains.
Facing a 1st-and-10 from the Noles’ 19-yard line, it appeared to be guaranteed points for the Hurricanes. On 2nd-and-8, a perfect throw by Kaaya slipped through the hands of Braxton Berrios for a guaranteed touchdown.
A play later Coley got back five, but on 4th-and-3, Miami was content to settle for three and Badgley sailed a 29-yard attempt left—more points left on the field against a team known for second-half rallies … and claw back the Noles did, outscoring the Canes, 23-3 down the stretch for an eventual, 30-26 comeback victory.
CONSERVATIVE CANES ARGUMENT; AN INACCURATE COP-OUT
As so often happens in the wake of such a loss; a difference of opinions regarding why Miami came up short—including an off-base “coaches got conservative” narrative from the anti-Al Golden contingent; a myth debunked by Sun-Sentinel columnist Dave Hyde on Monday morning.
“There’s no perspective anymore. Lose and it becomes a referendum on who to blame and how to blame them. This too-conservative idea had validity in the Louisville opener when Golden (like many coaches would) over-protected a freshman quarterback playing on the road, at night, in his first game. It had validity earlier on in the way the defense played off receivers, safeties played way back and there wasn’t enough attacking,” wrote Hyde.
“You don’t have to like the job Golden has done this season. It took three ugly losses to change the defense. That was the big problem this season. The depth isn’t where it should be in part because of NCAA issues and in part because more than 30 players have left the program. That’s too many.
But there’s minimal validity to questioning the conservative strategy in this loss.”
Hyde goes on to point out four points lost in the kicking game, three turnovers—which a three-loss Miami team cannot afford when facing the defending champs—as well as Johnson sidelined with cramps for the Hurricanes’ final possession and attempt at a game-winning touchdown; an overtime-forcing field goal not an option due to the earlier missed point after.
While the next few paragraphs won’t be a treat to write, read or digest, the drive-by-drive deep-dive is necessary based on emotional-overload and lack-of-logic being displayed by some in the wake of this loss.
Hyde touched on it and it’s fact; after an event like this, the desire and need by many to finger-pointing time and the blame game.
Someone has to be at fault and based on the the past few years and sub-par results, going after the coaches is understandable; until one rewatches the second half with a truly discerning eye. Below is the result of doing just that:
Up 13 points, how did Miami open the second half? Attempting to do what worked up until that point; attacking the middle of the field as Kaaya went right back to Walford. This time around, Kaaya’s throw as a little behind and defensive back Jalen Ramsey knew was what coming, made a play on the ball and almost came away with an interception.
Seminoles coaches watched the Hurricanes pick apart the middle of the field the first half, attempted to adjust and were intent on not letting that fly the rest of the game. (Despite this desire, Miami still attempted to attack the middle as it was open more times than not.)
Facing 2nd-and-10, Miami ran Johnson in an attempt to get something back, would up with ten. With a new set of downs, Kaaya threw to Johnson in the flats, but the play lost two as Ramsey read it, was in the backfield and made the tackle.
On third down Kaaya had Coley streaking down the right side, a window in which to fit the ball and he simply overthrew the receiver, setting up the punt—but again, nothing conservative about the Canes’ opening second half possession.
Miami’s Sonny Odogwu gets hit with a 15-yard personal foul, tackling the returner half a mile out of bounds and the Noles started on the Canes’ 40-yard line. Unfazed, Raphael Kirby was is in the mix two plays later, forced a fumble and Miami’s offense was back in business.
Johnson rushed on first down and picked up five, but Danny Isadora was hit with an illegal chop-block. It set up a 1st-and-21 and Miami immediately went back to the air—Kaaya finding Walford again in the middle of the field. 19-yard gain and on 2nd-and-2, Johnson plowed ahead for five yards.
The Canes went back to Johnson for seven and back-to-back Yearby runs netted nine total yards. Is four runs in a row conservative when it’s working and moving the chains? No. It’s taking what the defense is giving.
Facing a 2nd-and-7, Kaaya looked for Malcolm Lewis—who appeared to be held when streaking up the right sideline. On 3rd-and-7, Kaaya went quick-strike to Dorsett, who would’ve had a first down and more, but Mario Edwards got a hand on the ball, forcing another punt. Good call and a combination of poor execution / head-up defensive football.
The players didn’t make the play, but coaching was far from conservative. Canes’ coaches were looking to move the chains and build on the lead.
Florida State dinked-and-dunked their way to a touchdown on the ensuing possession, going 85 yards on 11 plays. Facing a 3rd-and-Goal from the 11-yard line, Tyriq McCord got a hand on Winston’s pass, tipped it up in the air and Karlos Williams brought it down and rolled in for the touchdown—as fluke as fluke can get, but the Canes still led, 23-17 and had another chance to build on their lead, but didn’t.
A third run with Johnson resulted in a one-yard loss, but it was obviously setting up the pass as Kaaya went back to the middle of the field on 2nd-and-11, finding Standish Dobard for what should’ve been a 30-yard gain, if not more.
Instead, the second fumble by a Miami tight end on the night and Florida State had the ball, looking for a go-ahead score. One more time, poor execution on the heels of some good play calling.
Credit to the Hurricanes’ defense, it forced a 37-yard field goal by Aguayo, putting the Noles in a 3rd-and-9 situation that was further aided by a false start—making for a three point Miami lead opposed to Florida State pulling ahead.
Where field goals used to sail up, down and all around for the Seminoles in this rivalry, Aguayo was perfect, scoring 12 of Florida State’s 30 points on Saturday night and has been a one of this program’s most valuable players for years now. That can’t be taken for granted—especially when Badgley gave away four points in the kicking game for the Canes.
With 14:45 remaining, Miami went back to Johnson, who picked up seven yards on first down and tore off a 28-yard run a play later—underscoring why the Hurricanes continued to run and leaned on their best player. Bait the Florida State defense with the run and it will eventually open up the opportunity for something big through the air.
Johnson cramped up and was sidelined, so Kaaya tried a first down pass to Yearby that had big yards written all over it, but it was batted down. On 2nd-and-10 the Canes ran Yearby and the true freshman picked up six yards. On 3rd-and-4 he barreled ahead for four more and Miami had another first down. Chains still moving.
The Canes went back to Dobard on first down—wide open in the middle of the field—but Eddie Goldman got a mitt on it and stopped a potentially big gain. This was the third would-be big passing play knocked down in the second half. Miami then ran on 2nd-and-10, looking to get something back and to avoid a third-and-long, but Johnson only gained one yard.
Could something less “conservative” have been done here? Sure. But the goal was to get the Canes in a third-and-short and Johnson is always the best option for that—and he’d been running well the second half.
On 3rd-and-9, Florida State brought heat, Ramsey blew by true freshman right tackle Trevor Darling and rushed Kaaya’s throw, which was tipped and fell incomplete. Badgley lined up for the 46-yarder, nailed it and Miami again led by six points with 11:01 remaining. Still, setting for three and the offense not finding the end zone—it proved disastrous by night’s end.
Conservative or leaning on what was working? Maybe this would’ve been a time to try Berrios or Coley on a slant, but Johnson could’ve easily picked up a half dozen yards as easily as the play was snuffed out.
On 2nd-and-11 an untimely false start on Jon Feliciano cost Miami five yards, making the play calling a bit more one-dimensional. This mistake by a veteran was much more crucial on the drive than a first down run attempt.
Once the Hurricanes were in 2nd-and-16, the trajectory of the possession changed. Kaaya overthrew Lewis on an attempted eight-yard gain and on 3rd-and-16, a dump off to Johnson simply to get something back and to keep the clock rolling, pre-punt.
Florida State’s game-winning drive started with an attempt to tight end Nick O’Leary. A bang-bang play that looked like a catch, tuck (re: football move) and two feet down, before a hit and would-be fumble—the play was called incomplete and wasn’t reviewed.
Miami didn’t challenge, nor did booth officials signal an official review. A play later Winston hit Rashad Greene for a 17-yard gain before anyone had time to process the almost-turnover and shift in momentum.
Winston then rushed for 18 yards but it was called back for a hold. Facing a 1st-and-20, a pass to Cook went 14 yards. Cook then ran for 15 yards and set up 1st-and-10 from the Miami 26-yard line.
On his touchdown run a play later no less than four Hurricanes whiffed on an attempt to take the true freshman back down; McCord, Olsen Pierre, Denzel Perryman and Thurston Armbister all failed on the game’s biggest defensive play.
Johnson got three on first down, Kaaya scrambled for five on second and hit Dorsett for a nine-yard gain on 3rd-and-2, setting Miami up with a first down at the Florida State 44-yard line.
Kaaya attempted to hit Yearby on a wheel route—similar to one that went for a score against Duke—but overthrew the back. Yearby got a yard on second down, unable to break for more. Both occurred with Johnson on the sidelined, cramped up having already carried 27 times for 130 yards.
On 3rd-and-9, Ramsey blitzed and got to Kaaya, who was again looking towards the middle of the field for an open tight end. With Johnson in, maybe Miami runs a delayed draw here to overcompensate for the obvious blitz, but No. 8 was cramping up and not an option.
On fourth down, a forced pass into triple coverage, looking for Dorsett, intercepted by Ramsey—who damn near single-handedly owned the second half for the Noles, playing out of his mind. Edwards also woke up for Florida State, having been a zombie in the first half. The veteran applied some head and batted down some sure receptions for the Canes.
While that overly-detailed rant took up a ton of real estate, it truly was necessary for history-sake and setting the record. A supposedly-conservative second half offense didn’t do Miami in; the culprit here was in the execution and players not stepping up.
Santana Moss said it in 2000 after an upset of Florida State, paraphrasing Rohan Marley after a game-definining interception by Carlos Jones in the 1994 version of this rivalry; “big time player, step up in big games,” or “big time players make big time plays,” depending who one chooses to quote.
Miami was the epitome of that much of the first half, but by in large unraveled in too many defining moments. The early Walford fumble. The Berrios drop. The Badgley misses. The Dobard fumble. The knocked down balls to wide open receivers, or tip that led to a Florida State touchdown. The O’Leary non-fumble. Overthrown balls to Coley, Lewis and Yearby. The Kaaya pick to seal a win for the Noles.
Coaches won’t name names or pin it on one play and will always call it a team loss, but reverse even one of those missteps and the Canes arguably emerge victorious in their biggest game in almost a decade. Too many moments simply didn’t go UM’s way.
WINNING THE STATS COLUMN, SANS THE SCOREBOARD
Did Miami play good enough to win? Yes, in one sense—but no, based on the simple fact they lost.
Numbers-wise, the Canes seemingly did what they set out to do. Owned the time of possession 35:27 to 24:23. Put up 492 total yards to Florida State’s 418. Rushed for 176 yards to the Noles’ 114 and won the passing battle 316-to-304, despite a true freshman going up against a Heisman winner.
Miami finished 10-of-18 on third down conversions, but was 8-of-11 in the first half. The turnover battle also cost the Hurricanes late—a big reason for the three-point second half.
Penalties-wise, Miami was also dinged five times (51 yards) to Florida State’s two (15 yards)—three of those coming for the Canes in the second half during crucial moments.
Another year without a run at an ACC Championship and two wins necessary to simply reach 8-4—by way of a road trip to Virginia and a home showdown against Pittsburgh.
The Canes certainly proved Saturday night that they can win out—but nothing will soon erase the pain regarding what slipped away on November 15th.
Another hard lesson absorbed, opposed to a win and necessary step forward.