The Miami Hurricanes got schooled by the Florida State Seminoles here Saturday night even worse than the oddsmakers had warned, but the lopsidedness of the result was only part of the worst of it.
The sight of Canes star running back Duke Johnson being helped off the field was equally ugly. The sight of him wincing and fighting tears on the sideline, his right ankle apparently broken and his season over was the snapshot of a game gone awful.
Miami’s night had added injury to insult.
For UM fans, both hurt.
Hurricanes coach Al Golden said something cautious and curious in the buildup to this top-10 showdown here. It sounded almost as if he was bracing UM fans for the defeat those oddsmakers so overwhelmingly foresaw with their 21-point betting line.
“A lot of people are premature and saying the U is back,” Golden had said. “The U is building.”
The statement was prescient.
The distinction between those two things — between being back all the way and working to get there — was laid bare for the Canes and their fans on a chilly night in front of a national television audience in a stadium dark with the burgundy of Seminoles fans.
Miami is getting closer, but the building goes on, and Saturday’s 41-14 Seminoles rout in front of a stadium-record crowd of 84,409 was an accurate reflection. (And now that building goes on with Johnson’s ankle at least temporarily immobilized in a cast.)
“Once we started getting behind it unraveled a little it,” Golden said.
Um, maybe more than a little bit.
Third-ranked FSU plows on at 8-0 now, angling for a shot at a national championship.
UM, now 7-1 and sure to fall from its No. 7 perch, is left to figure out the difference between itself and its rival and Atlantic Coast Conference nemesis.
Golden’s program might be free at last of the specter of an NCAA investigation and Nevin Shapiro — but it still must find a way to get free of FSU.
The Seminoles have now won the past four games in a row over Miami, and the Canes under Golden are 0-3 against the guys from Tally.
The difference between the teams Saturday night was clear, and it was all over the field. There was no shame in UM losing to a higher-ranked team that had obliterated and embarrassed Clemson even worse just a few weeks prior.
But neither was there any mistaking that the (much) better team — maybe the best college team in America — had won.
Noles freshman quarterback Jameis Winston is better than UM counterpart Stephen Morris, which was evident even on a night when both young men threw two interceptions. That speaks to Winston’s greatness; it isn’t even a knock on Morris.
Winston is the reason the Noles had rolled into this top-10 showdown having won their past three games by a combined 132 points, whereas the Canes, with Morris piloting, had trailed by double-digits in each of their past three games before rallying to beat lesser opponents.
Tempers boiled briefly in the third quarter as Canes defensive end Anthony Chickillo and Noles tackles Bobby Hart skirmished on the ground, attracting a jostling knot of teammates.
Call that macho display a draw.
If only the Canes had done as well otherwise. In the actual game, they got pushed around. Winston’s offense rolled powerfully through Miami’s defense, with touchdown drives of 72, 79, 80 and 83 yards.
UM is good and getting better — even if that wasn’t evident Saturday — but the U can’t be “back” to the degree that will ever satisfy the program’s tradition or fans until the Canes start beating the best teams starting with their biggest conference rival. Golden is now 3-5 against ranked teams in his three seasons.
Saturday’s was the stage that presented Miami the chance to seize the national respect still lacking.
The Hurricanes came up here all but dismissed, an unbeaten, seventh-ranked team being treated like a fraud.
UM’s 21-point underdog role was the biggest for any unbeaten team in a top-10 matchup this late in a season. It was an insult, and the Canes surely took it as such.
The vaunted, high-powered Seminoles and their electrifying Heisman-candidate quarterback were supposed to romp and roll all over the overmatched Canes.
And did just that.
This was the stage, so badly squandered.
This was the chance to obliterate that distinction Golden noted between the U being “back” and still “building.”
The rivalry, the unbeaten records, the top-10 rankings, the conference ramifications — all of it made this the biggest game certainly of the Golden Era, and arguably the most important night for UM football since the 2002-season national championship loss to Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl.
“It stands alone,” Golden said in describing this game.
It was the first time since the 2005 Peach Bowl that UM played a game in which both teams were ranked in the top 10; UM and FSU’s first meeting as top-10 teams since 2004; and the first time since 1991 the Canes were involved in a battle of unbeatens this late in a season.
ESPN’s College GameDay light was shining on the Canes for the first time in five years — such a spotlight, so wasted.
These old rivals could meet yet again in December in the ACC championship game, but Saturday suggests the framework would be the same.
UM won’t ever be quite done building until it finds a way to knock down the wall that is FSU.