MIAMI 37, FLORIDA 20
NEW ORLEANS No dispute about this: The Miami Hurricanes are Sugar Bowl champions.
Playing for a possible share of the national title, the second-ranked Hurricanes defeated No. 7 Florida 37-20 last night, getting two touchdowns from fullback Najeh Davenport.
Miami (11-1), hoping for a performance that would give voters in the Associated Press writers’ poll reason to name them No. 1, struggled early before finally putting away the Gators (10-3).
The issue is moot, of course, if No. 1 Oklahoma defeats No. 3 Florida State in the Orange Bowl tonight, in the Bowl Championship Series national title game.
But if Florida State wins, the AP title is up for grabs and the voters will have to decide whether Miami is their champion.
Not until Davenport scored to make it 37-20 with 4:21 left after Florida quarterback Rex Grossman’s second interception of the night was this game secure. Hurricanes’ mascot Sebastian the Ibis sensed it, running onto the field and drawing a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.
That was the capping moment from a comeback that began when Florida went ahead 17-13 on Earnest Graham’s 36-yard touchdown run early in the third quarter.
On the next drive, quarterback Ken Dorsey moved Miami 80 yards in 12 plays, capped by a 19-yard touchdown to D.J. Williams. A third-down, roughing-the-passer penalty by Gerard Warren kept that drive going.
After Florida stalled, Daryl Jones returned a punt 44 yards to put the Hurricanes in striking range, then Davenport responded with the play of the game.
Oquendo Johnson had perfect coverage and looked like the intended receiver, but Davenport reached over his helmet and snatched the ball away for a 10-point lead.
Another impressive point for the Hurricanes: They won with their leading rusher, James Jackson, injured most of the game and receiver Santana Moss playing with a hurting back.
A few other factors voters will consider: Florida State’s 30-7 victory over Florida in the final regular-season game and, of course, Miami’s 27-24 win over the Seminoles back in October.
They’ll also look at a 10-game winning streak, an offense that averaged 42 points a game and a defense that made big plays when it had to all season.
Miami showed parts of all that against Florida but also failed to capitalize on abundant opportunities.
A lot of this may have had to do with Florida, an overlooked underdog that came into this game looking to get a good start on next season.
Gators coach Steve Spurrier was at his devious best. On two occasions, he pulled out one of his favorite old tricks, the Emory & Henry Formation, where only three offensive linemen remain near the ball on the line of scrimmage. He uncharacteristically looked toward his running game to provide power, and it did.
When Graham scored from 36 yards on the play after Keiwan Ratliff’s interception early in the third quarter, the Gators had the lead and the Hurricanes were simply concerned with winning the game, not the national title.
That’s when experience took over and the Hurricanes started looking like champions.