Sunday, October 12, 2003

No. 2 Miami 22, No. 5 Florida St. 14

The (Fort Myers, Fla.) News-Press

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - This was supposed to be a statement game and that's exactly what it was. The Miami Hurricanes made a statement. The Florida State Seminoles took notes.

It turns out that many observers across the country were wrong on two counts, believing that Florida State was back and Miami was falling. The Canes addressed both issues on Saturday with an "uh... no," departing Doak Campbell Stadium as 22-14 victors in a game not nearly that close.

"It should've been 50-7," said Canes tight end Kellen Winslow Jr. He isn't too far off, considering that Florida State scored a touchdown on the game's final play.

Miami answered its critics and provided more ammunition for FSU's, particularly those of quarterback Chris Rix. What does a quarterback have to do to be benched? Even if backup Fabian Walker is terrible, he couldn't have done much worse than Rix, who fumbled four times (losing two) and was intercepted twice.

"I don't know if he'll (Rix) ever be able to adjust to the rain," FSU coach Bobby Bowden said, noting that Rix also struggled last year in wet weather at Louisville.

The steady rain was a factor, as puddles formed, feet slipped and the teams combined for 10 turnovers. But when the going is wet and muddy and nasty, mental toughness is tested as much as physical ability. Miami didn't need yet another challenge, already feeling under siege, under-appreciated and unloved by much of the nation (despite its No. 2 ranking).

FSU was supposed to have its way on the ground against Miami while shutting down the Canes' running game. Instead, Miami's Jarrett Payton outrushed the 'Noles by himself, gaining 97 yards to FSU's 61.

Making his first career start, amid whispers that he wasn't good enough to be a feature back at Miami, Payton found inspiration by wearing his father's jersey to the stadium and speaking with him during the game.

"People might've thought I was crazy today, looking up in the sky and talking," said Payton, son of the late NFL great, Walter Payton. "But I was conversing with my Pops."

Payton symbolized his entire team. Doubted. Considered suspect. Poised for failure. And he responded in Miami's typical fashion when placed in that position, especially on the road against highly-ranked opponents. For whatever reason, the Canes thrive on these big games in hostile stadiums, even more so after lackluster performances against lesser foes.

"It's frustrating for me because I want us to play great every Saturday," Miami coach Larry Coker said. "The team wants to play great every Saturday. We prepare that way. But I didn't have to tell them that it's Florida State and this week's a little bit different."

Miami jumped on FSU from the start, making big plays on special teams (blocked punt) and defense (interception return for a touchdown) en route to a 19-0 halftime lead. Canes quarterback Brock Berlin - apparently feeling neglected that Rix was getting so much attention (albeit negative) - reminded us that he can stink, too. He threw a pair of horrendous passes for interceptions on consecutive series in the third quarter, the latter leading to FSU's first touchdown and a 22-7 score.

But there would be no comeback, not with FSU failing to score after gaining first-and-goal from the 5, wasting a long drive midway through the last quarter. The 'Noles turned the ball over on downs once more before scoring on their final possession.

So the Canes have their swagger back after being underdogs for the first time since visiting Gainesville last year, when they thumped the Gators, 41-16. "We love that," safety Sean Taylor said. "I hope they pick us as underdogs every game from here on out."

Maybe he'll get his wish at Virginia Tech or at Pittsburgh, but he better not count on it. The Canes will need to find other means of motivation, which Taylor said won't be a problem.

"We don't need doubt," he said. "We're going to play, regardless. You won't see another close game. We're going to dominate."

That's the sort of bold statement Miami made during and after the game. It's too bad that FSU didn't have anything to say in response.

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