Tempers were already high when Jeff Thomas dashed down the Florida State sideline with a kick return to apparently place Miami near midfield late in the second quarter of an eventual 28-27 win. It’s a rivalry game, after all, and a small scrum broke out before the game when the Hurricanes cut off the Seminoles as Florida State walked to its locker room after warmups.
Thomas only had one player to beat as he raced down the right sideline: Logan Tyler, Florida State’s kickoff specialist and punter. Thomas extended for a stiff arm and Tyler reached for the wide receiver’s helmet. The specialist dragged Thomas all the way to the ground, twisting Thomas’ leg beneath his own body. The sophomore crumpled to the ground and Miami’s bench emptied, racing across the field to defend the teammate’s honor and drawing an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty in the process.
“He was by himself and as a team we don’t accept that,” linebacker Michael Pinckney said after the game. “If we’ve got to get the unsportsmanlike conduct, that’s what it’s going to be for the fact that we never leave a man behind in that situation by himself.”
Thomas limped off the field with help from the training staff and coach Mark Richt admitted it didn’t seem promising. Thomas didn’t return before halftime and remained sidelined into the second half as the Seminoles built a 27-7 lead. To stage one of the most improbable comebacks in the history of this storied rivalry, the No. 17 Hurricanes would need help from their leading receiver.
For nearly 15 minutes of game action, Miami’s trainers worked to get Thomas back from what WQAM reported was a hyperextended knee. All the while, he remained optimistic about returning to action.
“The whole team kept coming up to me,” Thomas said, “and being like, ‘We need you. We need you.’”
He finally returned with 4:17 left in the third quarter. An interception by Pinckney gave the Hurricanes the ball at Florida State’s 17-yard line with a chance to cut the Seminoles’ lead to a single position.
Thomas, for the first time since the first half, split out to the right flank and darted down the field. Miami would use the same play later in the game to throw a touchdown to tight end Brevin Jordan and Richt figured N’Kosi Perry would make the same decision this time. Instead, the quarterback immediately turned to the hobbled receiver.
Perry read the deep safety, who shaded toward the opposite side of the field of Thomas. With Thomas in single coverage, Perry tossed a fade to the sideline and Thomas pulled in an easy touchdown to cut Florida State’s lead to 27-20.
“I’m in a lot of pain,” Thomas admitted during a postgame press conference, “but I wasn’t trying to like think about it.”
It was only the start for Thomas.
After one three-and-out, Miami’s offense threatened to stall again early in the fourth quarter. Perry fired a pair of incompletions to bring up and third and 10 from the Hurricanes’ own 37-yard line. This time, Thomas flew through the seam and Perry tossed a 32-yard completion over top of Florida State’s defense for a critical third-down conversion.
“I’ve got a lot of trust in Jeff,” Perry said, “and I knew if I threw him a catchable ball, he would make the play.”
The catch, which was Thomas’ third and gave him 76 yards, was his final reception of the game, but not his last big play.
Miami’s offense played conservatively after Perry and Jordan linked up to give the Hurricanes the lead. Miami failed to score on any of its final three possessions, but one final momentum-shifting play by Thomas meant the Hurricanes played with a massive field-position advantage.
Tyler punted away with about 11 minutes remaining and, briefly, Thomas flirted with disaster. The wideout muffed the punt and found himself faced with a row of Seminoles once he picked up the ball. He started to his right, then switched the field left. Somehow, Thomas turned a negative return into a 34-yard play. Miami started at its own 44, which meant even the ensuing three and out punt would pin Florida State inside its own 20.
“If he’s in,” Richt said, “it’s just a different ball game than when he’s out.”