TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Call it “The Block at Hard Rock.”
In a series defined by wide-rights and wide-lefts and muffed snaps, perhaps it was only appropriate that the latest chapter of the Florida State-Miami rivalry swung on a kick.
DeMarcus Walker’s blocked extra-point with 1:41 left in the fourth quarter preserved a one-point advantage for the Seminoles after Miami scored what looked to be a game-tying touchdown.
One first down later, Florida State ran out the clock on a 20-19 victory as Miami fans headed for the exits and the war chant echoed throughout Hard Rock Stadium.
“Florida State-Miami, isn’t it?” said FSU coach Jimbo Fisher, who got an early start on his 51st birthday celebrations as the clock ticked past midnight.
“I don’t comprehend it. It’s something special because I know how many times Florida State was on the other end of those games for so many years. They’re a great team and it’s just a great rivalry.”
A rivalry which belongs to the Seminoles for yet another year. The victory is FSU’s seventh straight over the Hurricanes, which matches the longest streak in series history by either team. (FSU won seven straight between 1963 and 1972.)
For seniors like Walker and receiver Bobo Wilson, it means a full four years without a loss to Miami.
For junior Dalvin Cook, who tormented his hometown team for 209 total yards and a touchdown, it’s another year of bragging rights over friends and family back home.
And for Florida State (4-2, 1-2 ACC), it’s an emphatic statement about the program’s place atop the state’s college football hierarchy.
Despite a 4-0 record and No. 10 national ranking – and despite an FSU team that many national pundits thought was reeling after a 3-2 start – the Hurricanes, now 4-1, will have to wait at least another year.
“I can brag now,” Wilson said with a smile.
And he can do so knowing that he and the Seminoles earned every bit of this one.
Wearing throwback uniforms that harkened back to the program’s glory days of the 1980s and 90s, the Hurricanes built an early 13-0 lead that had most of the 65,585 fans in attendance ready to party like it was 1991.
But thanks to FSU’s best defensive effort of the season and a gutsy performance from quarterback Deondre Francois, the Seminoles crashed the celebration in the second half.
It started with a beautiful, 59-yard touchdown pass from Francois to Cook, who inexplicably found himself all alone on the left sideline for a score that cut FSU’s deficit to 13-10.
“I kind of snuck out of the backfield without being noticed,” Cook said. “Which is hard.”
Following a Miami three-and-out, Francois found Kermit Whitfield for a 20-yard touchdown that gave the Seminoles their first lead of the game.
“The nerves started to go away for our offense,” Francois said. “And we just started to convert.”
Francois survived a relentless attack from the Miami defense, having been sacked three times and twice enduring hits that required attention from the team’s medical staff.
Fisher said he expects his quarterback to be sore on Sunday, but, for Francois, staying on the sideline was never an option.
“It didn’t matter if I felt good or not. It’s my team,” Francois said. “I’m the quarterback of this team and they needed me, so I went back in the game.”
Charles Kelly’s defense, meanwhile, put the brakes on a Miami offense that entered Saturday’s game as one of the best in the nation.
Through four games, the Hurricanes averaged 475 yards and 47 points per contest.
Against the Seminoles, they managed just 276 yards – including a paltry 62 on the ground – and went more than 30 minutes between scores in the second and fourth quarters.
That’s thanks in large part to sophomore cornerback Tarvarus McFadden, who picked off UM’s Brad Kaaya in the end zone early in the third quarter to keep FSU’s deficit at 13-3. It was McFadden’s fourth interception of the season.
“I was extremely proud of our defense,” Fisher said. “The big stops and the things they did today – they played their tails off.”
And yet, the Hurricanes wouldn’t let the Seminoles leave town without one more memorable finish.
Facing a late fourth-and-5 from Florida State’s 11-yard line, Kaaya floated a pass over McFadden – he would later say he lost the ball in the stadium lights – and into the arms of receiver Stacy Coley for a touchdown that made it 20-19.
It was the duo’s second scoring hookup of the night, and, with just 1:38 to go, it looked like the touchdown that might send the game to overtime.
But first, Miami had to make the extra point.
And, after sizing up the Hurricanes kicking unit throughout the game, Walker felt like there was a weakness he could exploit.
“They kicked so many field goals, I knew what side was stronger and what side was weaker,” Walker said. “Coach (Odell) Haggins, he wanted us to block it from the left. And I looked to the sidelines and I said, ‘No, let’s go right.’”
Walker might be the only player on Florida State’s roster with that kind of leeway. And he made sure not to let his coach’s trust go to waste by delivering a play that might come to represent the pivotal moment in FSU’s 2016 season.
Walker felt the ball deflect off of his hand, but even then worried that the ball might still make its way through the uprights.
It wasn’t until he saw his teammates celebrating that he realized what had happened.
“I didn’t block that,” Walker said. “We did that as a defense. As a team.”
With another win over the Hurricanes in hand, the Seminoles are set to return home to face Wake Forest next Saturday (3:30 p.m., ESPN). They’ll then have a bye week before hosting No. 2 Clemson on Oct. 29.
But no one in the Florida State locker room was ready to look forward just yet.
Wins over Miami – even the seventh in a row – are always savored a little bit longer.
“Five years from now,” Cook said, “you’ll go back and tell whoever you tell the story to – ‘I was a part of that game where we came back, the defense blocked an extra-point.’ …
“It’s just a great feeling, just to be a part of it.”