There was so much that was different about Saturday's Florida State-Miami game. No Orange Bowl. No rankings in front of the teams' names. Empty seats at Dolphin Stadium.
But two things never change about this rivalry: the roller-coaster of bizarre plays and momentum swings and -- at least these past five years or so -- mind-numbingly horrific quarterback and special teams plays.
The 'Noles manhandled the 'Canes for the first 30 minutes. FSU's defense, which came into the game ranked third in the country, suffocated Miami QBs Robert Marve (17-of-41, 121 yards, two INTs) and Jacory Harris (3-of-7, 32 yards, one INT). Meanwhile, FSU's offense -- just two weeks removed from a nightmarish 12-3 loss to Wake Forest -- continued what it first showed off last week against Colorado: a drastically improved running game. Behind the youngest starting offensive line in the country (three freshmen and two sophomores), the 'Noles ran for 326 yards on the night. Their most effective play was the QB keeper -- Christian Ponder gashed Miami's defense for 146 yards on 18 attempts, most of it the first half.
Late in the first half, the 'Noles led 24-0 on the scoreboard and 270-11 in total yardage. By early in the fourth quarter, Miami had cut the deficit to 34-32 while barely having to lift a finger on offense. At one point the TV camera caught Bobby Bowden standing in the rain on the sideline with that same look of disbelief we've seen umpteen times in this rivalry.
Give the 'Canes credit for mounting such an admirable comeback, but FSU did everything in its power to try to surrender the lead. An Antone Smith fumbled handoff on his own 18-yard line led to Miami's first touchdown. Twice, the 'Noles botched punt snaps in front of their own end zone. The first resulted in a safety and, on Miami's subsequent play, a 51-yard halfback touchdown pass, cutting the 'Noles' lead to 31-22.
Just when it appeared FSU had regained momentum, going up 34-22 and picking off a potential Marve touchdown pass, Ponder (14-of-31, 159 yards, one TD, two INTs) did his best Chris Rix impersonation, lobbing the ball into the air while backpedaling into his own end zone. 'Canes LB Sean Spence picked it off and scored, closing the gap to 34-29. Then came the next botched punt snap, followed by a Miami field goal.
Eventually, Smith dashed for a 20-yard touchdown to go back up by two scores, but the game wasn't over until Miami scored on a tackle-eligible to get it to 41-39 but failed to recover a last-second onsides kick -- all taking place in what appeared to be a monsoon.
Ah, just another FSU-Miami game.
While there were certainly bright spots for these two rebuilding programs -- FSU's defense was dominant and its running game surprisingly effective, while Miami freshman Travis Benjamin (who scored on an 18-yard run, 51-yard catch and gained nearly 200 return yards) looked like the second coming of Devin Hester -- they're still much closer to their 2006 selves than their 2000 selves.
FSU's (3-1) defense gives it a chance to contend in the wide-open ACC this year, but only if Ponder becomes a more consistent passer. Miami, which dropped to 2-3, is in for another year of growing pains.