The question wasn’t even finished before Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher knew where it was headed.

 

“Play action, rail route … tried to throw it to Pat Carter in the right end zone,” Fisher said earlier this week when asked about the most debated two-point play in Seminoles history, a pass from Danny McManus intended for Carter that was batted down by Bubba McDowell of Miami to preserve the Hurricanes’ 26-25 victory 30 years ago this week.

Fisher wasn’t at the game on Oct. 3, 1987. He was in Athens, Tenn., that day as Samford University’s starting quarterback, leading the Bulldogs to a 59-7 victory over Tennessee Wesleyan. But he has seen the replays and talked for hours with former Seminoles coach Bobby Bowden about his thought process leading up to that fateful decision that was the only loss that season for FSU and the closest the Hurricanes came to losing as they went on to win the national championship with a 12-0 record.

Three decades later, the Seminoles (1-2, 1-1) play host to the 13th-ranked Hurricanes (3-0, 1-0) on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. and the only thing Fisher knows for certain is that he and every other college coach doesn’t have to make the gut-wrenching call Bowden did that day. Overtime came to college football 21 years ago and with less than a minute to play, in the same situation, Fisher and every other coach would have sent in the extra-point team.

The debate over whether Bowden should have accepted a tie or gone for the win continues to be a part of the lore of that 1987 game, easily the biggest of the 66-year history of the rivalry that remains unmatched for its ebb and flow, and the breadth of the talent on both sides.

And after McManus threw an 18-yard touchdown pass to Raines graduate Ronald Lewis with 42 seconds left, Bowden had what has since proven to be the biggest in-game decision in his coaching career.

There’s no question where the players stood.

“There’s no way we wanted to tie them,” said wide receiver Lawrence Dawsey, now the FSU wide receivers coach. “Coach Bowden did what the players wanted him to do. We wanted to try and win the game.”

“Unanimous,” said another FSU assistant who played in the game, defensive line coach Odell Haggins, said what the result would be if there had been time to take a vote.

Bowden said he only had to see the faces of his offensive players as they came off the field when the kicking unit ran onto the field.

“I could tell what they wanted to do,” Bowden said during a recent phone interview. “They were disappointed.”

Bowden called timeout and sent the offense back onto the field. McManus rolled to the right and lofted a pass to Carter, who had led the team with four receptions that day, but he was double-covered and McDowell batted the ball down.

Former Miami quarterback and now Hurricanes coach Mark Richt, who will make his first visit to Tallahassee since he was on the FSU staff from 1987 to 1999, was a graduate assistant on the FSU staff and said UM out-guessed the ‘Noles on the two-point play.

“We didn’t get the coverage we thought we might get,” Richt said. “They just defended it. They did a better job defending it than we did scoring.”

The three principles of that final play, McManus, Carter and McDowell, symbolized the breathtaking amount of talent in one stadium for one game. All three were drafted by NFL teams, and Carter and McDowell were two of the 27 players from both teams who went in the first three rounds.

Miami had 31 players from that team who played in the NFL, with 29 drafted. There were five first-round picks: safety Bennie Blades, defensive tackle Jerome Brown, defensive end Bill Hawkins, fullback Alonzo Highsmith and wide receiver Michael Irvin.

Florida State had 30 players from that game who went on to the NFL, 26 draftees and three in the first round: cornerback Deion Sanders and running backs Sammie Smith and Dexter Carter.

And after they scratched and clawed for 59 minutes and 28 seconds, one play would determine the winner, and the national championship.

Fisher said Bowden had numerous factors to be considered, and not all of them related to what happened on the field that day.

“It depends on the season and the situation,” he said. “What happened earlier in the year? If they lost another one, would they be in it [for a national championship]? How much did [the players] put into it … the momentum of the game. There’s a ton of things that go into that decision-making.”

And Bowden had to calculate the odds within the span of a time out.

Richt said it’s an ages-old dilemma for coaches.

“If it works you’re smart,” he said. “If it doesn’t, you’re not very smart.”