Florida State Coach Bobby Bowden could not bring himself to watch how his third unbeaten regular season ended. He would twist and turn his body, grimace, tug at his cap and throw his hands in the air. But in the end, he would not watch what happened to Florida's 55th and final pass attempt on a wild afternoon when a roaring crowd of 85,747 saw a game that was a wonderful mixture of perfect theater and imperfect football.
Bowden did not see that Florida quarterback Jesse Palmer's final prayer of a pass attempt was tipped once, maybe even twice before falling incomplete in the end zone to give Florida State a 30-23 victory over its arch rival.
What he did see was his players in a mad celebration, and then he felt himself swept off the field in a sea of players and emotion that will carry the Seminoles all the way to New Orleans for the Sugar Bowl and a national championship game, possibly against Virginia Tech.
It was the third perfect regular season under Bowden; his 1996 team was 11-0 before losing to Florida in the Sugar Bowl, and his 1979 team was 11-0 before falling to Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl.
"It's pretty darn special," the 70-year-old coach said. "I can't tell you how proud I am of our players."
Top-ranked Florida State (11-0) proved its mettle in the toughest of environments against an opponent that pushed the Seminoles to the limit and then some. Florida (9-2) rallied from a 10-point deficit to take a brief 16-13 lead in the third quarter, but the Seminoles rode quarterback Chris Weinke and wide receiver Peter Warrick to 17 straight points. When Palmer's final pass fell incomplete, Bowden was within a victory of his second national championship.
His Seminoles handed the Gators only their fourth home loss of the decade. Against a defense that hadn't allowed a touchdown in 10 quarters entering the game, the Seminoles rolled up 346 yards and had scoring drives of 80, 71 and 78 yards. They had four players line up at quarterback and spread the ball among seven runners and six pass receivers.
Weinke made it go by throwing for 263 yards, but Warrick did a bit of everything, catching nine passes for 90 yards, rushing five times for 26 yards and throwing an incomplete pass.
"He's the best player in the country," Weinke said. "He deserves the Heisman Trophy. It's a shame some others don't agree."
And the Seminoles withstood adversity. When Florida cornerback Bennie Alexander returned a Weinke interception 43 yards for a touchdown midway through the third quarter, the Gators had a three-point lead and one of college football's most intimidating home crowds on their side.
"At no time was I ever worried about losing this game," Weinke said. "I mean, a quarterback is going to make some mistakes. When that happens, you have to relax and regroup. That's what I did."
What he did was throw five straight completions as the Seminoles got Sebastian Janikowski in position for a 54-yard field goal that tied the score at 16 with 4 minutes 46 seconds left in the third quarter.
On a day when the Gators jumped offside, lined up in illegal formations and seemed close to coming undone by the pressure, they made their biggest mistake of all moments later by allowing Florida State linebacker Tommy Polley to slip through and block a punt by Alan Rhine. The Seminoles fell on the ball at the Florida 21-yard line. On third and five, Weinke scrambled for a first down, and two plays later, backup tailback Jeff Chaney scored on a two-yard run for a 23-16 Florida State lead.
Weinke is not usually mentioned when NFL scouts discuss the best college quarterbacks, but he has proven himself to Florida State fans. Today was the 13th time an opponent has tied or taken the lead against the Seminoles. In the Florida State possessions that followed those scores, the Seminoles have scored six touchdowns and two field goals. Weinke has completed 76 percent of his passes in those possessions.
"What he did today," Bowden said, "that's what he has done all year."
Florida then drove to the Florida State 18, but on third down, safety Chris Hope intercepted quarterback Doug Johnson's pass at the goal line. Five plays later, Weinke tossed a 27-yard touchdown pass to Marvin Minnis to bury the Gators.
"This is what we've worked all year for," Weinke said.
The victory was especially sweet for Warrick, who withstood an afternoon of taunts over the department store scam that got him suspended earlier this season. He got the Seminoles started with a four-yard touchdown run in which he lined up at quarterback, then weaved left, then right before jogging untouched into the end zone.
"I heard a few things, but as the game went on, it didn't mean anything," Warrick said with a smile. "I got the last laugh. Well, the national championship would be the last laugh."
The Gators will remember this game for other reasons. Coach Steve Spurrier rotated quarterbacks Johnson and Palmer on every play, and while neither played particularly poorly, the Gators seemed out of sync.
Besides 15 penalties (the third-highest total for a Spurrier team), the Gators drove into Florida State territory six times in the first three quarters without scoring a touchdown. They once drove to the 1-yard line, but lined up in an illegal formation and were forced to settle for a field goal. On a day when they had more yards, more first downs and more plays than the Seminoles, they were left with a particularly bitter taste.
"It didn't look like we were mentally prepared," Florida wide receiver Darrell Jackson said. "Either that or we got lackadaisical. It wasn't the quarterbacks. It was all of us. We shot ourselves in the foot."
Spurrier ripped his players, twice using the word "stupid." He also criticized the officiating. And he even taunted the Seminoles, saying: "FSU is not as good as they used to be."
Told what Spurrier had said, Bowden responded: "That might be the way he feels. I don't know. And I don't care. We're undefeated. He ain't."