HOLLYWOOD, Fla. – Friday’s Capital One Orange Bowl between Florida State and Michigan pits two of the premier programs in college football. Michigan has more wins than any school in college football history, while Florida State, despite only fielding football teams since 1947, boasts an all-time winning percentage that ranks 13th all-time and the best among schools with more than 600 but fewer than 1,000 games played.
The game should be a jewel of this year’s bowl season and perhaps the most compelling contest outside of the College Football Playoff.
It’s also a much different landscape than the last time the Seminoles played the Wolverines. It was 1991, a little more than 25 years ago, when Bobby Bowden took the Seminoles to Michigan Stadium. FSU carried a No. 1 national ranking, but, for many fans and pundits, a visit to Ann Arbor was something of a “prove it” game: Michigan was ranked No. 3 and brought with it a century of winning tradition, as well as the biggest stadium in college football and one of the nation’s elite players in the form of receiver and returner Desmond Howard.
What happened on Sept. 28, 1991 – a resounding, 51-31 victory for the Seminoles – has since been overshadowed somewhat by FSU’s later accomplishments. The Seminoles would start their run of dominance in the Atlantic Coast Conference a year later and, in 1993, they won the first of three national championships and saw their first of three Heisman Trophy winners.
But at the time, it ranked among the landmark wins in school history. A national declaration that Bowden’s bunch weren’t just flash-in-the-pan upstarts who had pulled off a few upsets in the 1980s. By winning at Michigan, the Seminoles showed that they were here to stay.
“For us to go up there and do what we did in their house, in front of all those fans, that definitely let everybody know,” said William Floyd, a redshirt freshman fullback in 1991.
“We kicked in the door and said, ‘Florida State is here. You’d better watch out for us.’”
Speed versus size
The Michigan game fell fourth on FSU’s 1991 schedule, and after easy wins over Brigham Young, Tulane and Western Michigan to start the season, the Seminoles had a well-timed bye week to prepare for the Wolverines.
The week off also helped build the hype to a fever pitch.
College football writers settled on an easy storyline for the game: Florida State’s speed and athleticism matched up against Michigan’s overwhelming strength and size.
Not that this was off-base. Led by right tackle Greg Skrepanek, Michigan’s starting offensive line averaged 293.4 pounds. That’s big for today’s college football. Twenty-five years ago, it was gargantuan.
The Seminoles, however, weren’t buying it.
“Our attitude was, ‘We’re from Florida and we won’t let no team from the Midwest kick our (rear-end),’” said Marvin Jones, a sophomore linebacker who earned back-to-back All-America honors in 1991 and 1992. “And that’s just how it was. We felt they weren’t on the same playing field, talent-wise.”
Except, maybe in one area.
The game’s other prominent storyline revolved around the duel between Michigan’s Howard and Florida State cornerback Terrell Buckley.
Both were brash and outspoken, and both could back it up: Howard went on to win the 1991 Heisman Trophy while Buckley earned the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation’s top defensive back.
And how each fared against the other would go a long way in determining the game’s outcome.
“It was a great challenge, an exciting challenge” said Buckley, now the defensive backs coach and recruiting coordinator at Mississippi State. “And something I’ll never forget.”
Seminoles fans won’t soon forget it, either.
Because while Howard and Buckley both made their marks in the game, it was Buckley who drew first blood. And Buckley who set the tone for all that would follow.
‘The Beauty of Sports’
Bowden loved to play the underdog card. Any scrap of doubt or disrespect he could find from the media would usually make its way to the Florida State locker room.
Before the game at Michigan, on a day described in the official box score as 60 degrees, sunny and cool, Bowden took matters into his own hands. He told his team that he wasn’t sure it could keep up with the Wolverines. And that, if FSU won the coin flip, he was going to receive the opening kickoff rather than defer to the second half as he usually did.
He then paused, turned, and with a hint of a smile said, “The hell I am.”
Michigan won the toss and elected to receive, so Bowden’s ploy was mostly for naught. But it served to fire up his defense which, two plays into the game, provided what has become one of the iconic images in FSU football history.
After a short kickoff and a six-yard run on first down, Michigan quarterback Elvis Grbac decided to give Buckley his first test.
Howard lined up in the backfield before splitting in motion to his right. He ran what looked like a short, hitch route but Grbac’s throw was slow and Buckley read it the whole way. The cornerback had perhaps the easiest interception of his life and no one wearing blue had a prayer to catch him as he raced down the right sideline.
Buckley polished off his 36-yard touchdown run by leaping into a pocket of Seminole fans in the crowd as the Florida State fight song echoed throughout a stunned stadium.
Seminoles 7, Wolverines 0.
Venerable play-by-play man Keith Jackson was on the microphone that day, and he gave a call worthy of the moment: “Florida State was sitting and waiting for it and Terrell Buckley has scored a touchdown! How do you do!’
Twenty-five years later, Buckley still credits his work in practice for the play that has become entwined with his FSU legacy.
“Coach (Mickey) Andrews would always practice three-step reads, reading the quarterback and getting your eyes back to the receiver, breaking to the up-field shoulder and then adjusting to the ball,” Buckley said. “So, for me, it was a normal read.
But still …
“Getting in the end zone and jumping in the stands, now that was new,” Buckley added with a laugh. “It was one of those things that was not planned. It just happened. To me, that’s the beauty of that game and the beauty of sports.”
‘Pretty cute, huh?’
Howard struck back on Michigan’s ensuing drive with a diving, 13-yard touchdown catch that made it 7-7.
With the Wolverines threatening to snatch back FSU’s early momentum, Bowden reached into his bag of tricks – twice.
After the Seminoles drove to Michigan’s 40-yard line, Bowden sneaked reserve quarterback Charlie Ward into the huddle and lined him up at receiver.
Starter Casey Weldon took the snap and tossed a long lateral to Ward, in the process drawing the attention of almost every Michigan defender.
That left Weldon all alone – save for a convoy of offensive linemen – on the right sideline, which allowed Ward to make an easy throwback to Weldon. He then scampered his way down for a 30-yard gain to the Michigan 10-yard line.
Weldon had a scary moment when he took a massive hit to his hip on the play, but the Seminoles were back in business.
Weldon, a Tallahassee native now living in Tampa, said the inspiration for the trick play came from an unlikely source: Steve Spurrier and the Florida Gators.
“What’s funny is we stole that play from Spurrier,” Weldon said. “We called it ‘Crocodile’ because we wouldn’t dare call it ‘Gator.’ They tried to run it against us the year before and it didn’t work. (Bowden) knew how to coach it and how to call it so it actually worked.
“I just wish I had thrown it to Charlie instead of him throwing to me – I wouldn’t have got obliterated and he would have scored.”
Instead, the Seminoles crossed the goal-line four plays later when Bowden called for another trick, this time on special teams.
“The whole week we were practicing this fake field goal,” Floyd said. “And Coach Bowden was like, ‘If we get the opportunity, we get down on the goal line and they’re not going to be expecting it, we’re going to do this fake field goal.
“So the whole week, I’m hoping and praying that we get down on the goal line and get a chance to run it.”
Floyd got his wish. Four plays after Ward’s pass to Weldon, the Seminoles faced a fourth down from the 4-yard line. Bowden sent out his field-goal unit, and the ball was snapped as normal.
But as kicker Dan Mowrey approached, holder Brad Johnson instead flipped the ball forward to Floyd, who was making his way around the right side of the line.
Floyd had to navigate some light traffic but eventually fell into the end zone for a touchdown that made it 13-7.
“It might have been the quietest 105,000 people have ever been that quick in the game,” Weldon said. “That part was a lot of fun.”
Jackson, with another memorable call, said, “This is a 21-yard try — no it’s not, either! It’s touchdown, Florida State, William Floyd takes it in! Pretty cute, huh?”
‘I ran through people’
Florida State maintained its lead the rest of the way, although Michigan remained at arm’s length for much of the afternoon.
The Seminoles scored by more conventional means for the remainder of the first half, riding two Amp Lee touchdowns to a 31-23 halftime lead.
And they extended their advantage to 37-23 thanks to the second of three touchdown passes on the day from Weldon.
Michigan’s best chance to give the Seminoles a scare came early in the fourth quarter when, still trailing by 15, Howard returned a punt 40 yards to the FSU 20-yard line.
But with a chance to cut FSU’s lead to single digits and bring its crowd back to life, Michigan was stuffed on fourth-and-1 thanks to Jones, who leapt over the line of scrimmage and delivered a crushing blow to Michigan fullback Burnie Legette. The hit knocked Legette off-balance long enough for a host of Seminoles to finish the tackle, and FSU took over on downs.
“I just thought I was going to run through there and keep running all the way to the end,” Jones said. “That’s one thing I prided myself on – I ran through people.”
Despite giving up size to Michigan’s offensive line, FSU’s defense on that day allowed just 120 rushing yards on 44 attempts – good for a paltry 2.7 yards per carry.
And Mickey Andrews’ group scored an exclamation point when defensive end Toddrick McIntosh picked off a fourth-quarter pass and returned it 49 yards for FSU’s second defensive touchdown of the game.
That touchdown gave FSU 51 points, at the time the most ever by an opponent in Michigan Stadium.
“We were just so confident,” Jones said. “If you look at the players we had on that team, I mean, realistically, when it came to the linebacker corps, who was better than us? When you looked at cornerbacks and Terrell Buckley, how many people could compete with that guy? Or Corey Sawyer, Clifton Abraham? Defensive line-wise, come on, now.
“It was kind of ludicrous.”
A pre-game underdog despite their No. 1 national ranking, the Seminoles couldn’t leave Ann Arbor without a piece of sod from The Big House which, ironically, had just converted from artificial turf to natural grass for the 1991 season.
Florida State’s Sod Cemetery tradition dates back to 1962 and, by 1991, had acquired sod from stadiums at Georgia, Nebraska, Notre Dame and Ohio State, among others.
But in the wake of FSU’s win over Michigan, Bowden admitted that earning a headstone from Michigan carried some extra significance.
“I could think of five schools in the nation where I’d say, ‘If I could get some turf there, I could never top this,’” Bowden said after the game. “Michigan is one of those.”
That group of Seminoles was used to winning, but it didn’t take long for them to realize that this one was different.
They arrived at the airport later that night to find a mob of fans – Jones estimates around 15,000 – waiting to welcome them home.
And rather then head straight for the busses and back to their dorms, Bowden led the Seminoles through the airport concourse, where fans had formed a tunnel from the gate to the parking lot.
“I can tell you what – after kicking Michigan’s (rear-end), I had never seen Tallahassee in the mode it was in that night,” Jones said. “I had never experienced it.”
Added Weldon, “It was as close to a rock star and a red carpet that I’ve ever been on. … It was just priceless.”
Florida State held on to its No. 1 ranking for the next six weeks. But after earning one of the most famous wins in school history, the 1991 Seminoles also suffered one of the program’s most infamous defeats.
That, of course, was the Miami game, which FSU lost 17-16 after Gerry Thomas’ 34-yard field goal attempt sailed wide right as time expired.
The loss cost the 1991 Seminoles their shot at a national title, although several members of that group were upperclassmen when the 1993 Seminoles finally reached the top of the mountain.
Those who were in Ann Arbor in 1991 said that winning at Michigan helped pave the way for that title, as well as the run of dominance that ensued throughout the rest of the 1990s.
“The tradition we were starting to build – it was just getting started, really,” Weldon said. “We were building what the players now have. That was just the beginning of it.”