CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – It’s among the most famous plays in Virginia football history, one that’s immortalized in photos and highlight videos throughout UVA’s Scott Stadium.
It’s also one of the most painful and controversial plays in Florida State’s storied past.
Twenty-four years after FSU great Warrick Dunn took a direct snap and fell just millimeters short of the goal line in a loss at Virginia, this year’s Seminoles and Cavaliers paid homage to the play, in all the worst ways.
With four seconds on the clock and FSU trailing No. 25 UVA by seven points, running back Cam Akers fielded a direct snap, ran to his right and barreled toward the end zone.
He was met by a host of UVA defenders who managed, at the very least, to get Akers’ elbow on the ground at the 4-yard line for the final play of the Cavaliers’ 31-24 victory.
Same play. Same end zone. Same result.
And another heart-wrenching loss for the Seminoles, who must bounce back next week at home against Louisville.
“We called the play and it didn’t work,” FSU head coach Willie Taggart said.
“It was a great play call,” quarterback James Blackman added. “We just didn’t execute it. … Cam made a great effort trying to get it to the end zone, man. You know he’s going to fight his hardest.”
He did, and, in reality, so did his teammates. For three quarters, the Seminoles played perhaps their sharpest, most inspired game of this season and beyond.
Their defense had stifled UVA’s run game, kept dynamic quarterback Bryce Perkins mostly in check and had forced two turnovers.
And the offense, while not at the same high-flying pace from the first two games, scored enough to keep pace and answer when the Cavaliers threatened to take control.
Even the special teams, with a pair of walk-ons still front and center, did its part with strong punting, consistent kickoffs and a 53-yard field goal from Ricky Aguayo.
Through three quarters, the Seminoles had followed the script for a road upset perfectly. And they were rewarded in kind, with a 17-10 lead, entering the fourth.
That’s when Virginia’s offense, a series of penalty flags and some familiar defensive demons conspired to snatch it all away.
UVA, led by the senior quarterback Perkins, struck for 21 points and 134 yards in the fourth quarter. And the Seminoles aided UVA’s cause by committing five penalties – four of them personal fouls – that gifted the Cavaliers 44 yards.
Three of the penalties occurred on a UVA touchdown drive that would have tied that game, were it not for a missed extra point.
And a later infraction gave the Cavaliers first-and-goal at the FSU 8-yard line and led to the winning score two plays later.
“Those are things you can’t do,” Taggart said. “That’s losing football. We’ve got to play winning football. And, in the fourth quarter, we can’t have those things. You can’t have them at all.”
In an ironic twist, the Cavaliers handed FSU a lifeline in the very same fashion.
With 2:34 on the clock, two timeouts and a seven-point deficit, the Seminoles needed 75 yards to score a touchdown that would’ve forced overtime.
Four major penalties called against the Cavaliers – including back-to-back 15-yarders after a fourth-down stop – gave the Seminoles 59 of those yards.
Despite gaining only four yards on its own, FSU found itself at Virginia’s 16-yard line with a little more than 20 seconds to play and one timeout in its pocket.
That timeout, however, went away when Blackman was sacked on first down. Which caused a problem two plays later, when Blackman connected with Keyshawn Helton for 16 yards on third-and-14 – down to the Virginia 4 but in the middle of the field.
What followed next was the source of much discussion – and heartburn for FSU fans. TV replays showed seven seconds when the play finished, and the clock should have stopped to move the chains after the first down.
However, three more seconds ticked off and, rather than risk spiking the ball and running out of time, the Seminoles instead signaled for the fateful direct snap.
“(The Seminoles) had no timeouts, so I expected them to run the play,” UVA coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “(Akers) is a phenomenal football player. It was a wild and hard-fought and effort-filled and physical finish to a game that basically looked like that the whole time.”
In calling the play, offensive coordinator Kendal Briles’ thinking was probably similar to that of Mark Richt, who was calling plays for FSU back in 1995: Try to create some confusion with the direct snap, put the ball in the hands of your best player and then live with whatever result follows.
Those 1995 Seminoles, of course, were forced to swallow a bitter pill – their first loss after 29 games of ACC competition.
This year’s bunch, meanwhile, must reckon with a loss that could have so easily gone their way.
“I thought they played hard, and it was good to see out of our guys,” Taggart said, “but we didn’t make enough plays in the fourth quarter to win the ball game.”
Blackman finished 22 of 37 for 234 yards and three touchdowns, and Akers added 78 yards on the ground for the Seminoles, who finished with 329 yards despite holding the ball for just 20:16.
Helton led FSU’s receivers with five catches for 34 yards and a touchdown.
“Everyone fought,” Blackman said. “Everyone kept fighting. We knew this was a game we wanted bad, so everyone was going to have to go in and dig – and dig deep.
“It did not turn in too well, but we just put it behind us and get ready for next week.”