Greg Cote

Hurricanes, Seminoles were battling to show Miami how close it was to ‘back,’ and the answer was ‘not close enough’

University of Miami Hurricanes linebacker Gerald Willis (91) and teammate defensive linemen Joe Jackson (99) sacks Florida State Seminoles quarterbacks Sean Maguire in the second quarter at Hard Rock Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 8, 2016, in Miami Gardens.
University of Miami Hurricanes linebacker Gerald Willis (91) and teammate defensive linemen Joe Jackson (99) sacks Florida State Seminoles quarterbacks Sean Maguire in the second quarter at Hard Rock Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 8, 2016, in Miami Gardens.

There is a sign up ahead on the side of the road, getting larger by degrees as you approach. It has but a single word on it — BACK — with an arrow pointed in the direction you are headed. There is no mileage listed, though. So you cannot be exactly sure how near or far away you are from Back, only that you are getting there.

The Miami Hurricanes are getting there. Getting closer, right?

Saturday night was going to tell them how close they might be, or how far away they still were.

It did.

And the frustration in that verdict showed itself with five minutes to play when, responding to a call that went against their team, Miami Hurricanes fans pelted the field with water bottles and other debris, briefly delaying the game. The sad display was pure frustration. It had been simmering six years, all of that steam looking for a release valve that would not come.

Florida State Seminoles 20, Hurricanes 19.

The debris flew with Miami trailing 20-13, but a miracle dressed in orange seemed to transpire then. The Canes’ Braxton Berrios returned a punt 43 yards to the FSU 15. Soon after Brad Kaaya parachuted a perfect 11-yard scoring pass to Stacy Coley in the left corner of the end zone. A 103rd consecutive extra point kick by Michael Badgley would tie the game and perhaps mean overtime.

Except the unthinkable happened. The kicker who never misses did because the Seminoles swatted his kick and it went wide left.

All of those old games the Seminoles lost to Miami because a field goal went wide right — Bobby Bowden’s lament — and this one turned wide left against the Canes. Only sports can give you endings like this.

Maybe no one game, no one result, especially one that ends like this, should have the power to shape a season. But if any did, it was this one. Florida State. For Miami, it was the litmus test. The gauge.

This result was going to be framed out of proportion, seen symbolically. That might be unfair or even illogical, but that’s the way it is when you are a Miami Hurricanes team that was ranked No. 10 and was 4-0 and facing the one team it had to beat to prove something.

If only close counted.

A would-be touchdown run by the Canes’ Mark Walton had been wiped out by a holding penalty along the way. No matter. History has it 20-19, Noles. A seventh straight Miami loss to its state rival.

Disproportionately, symbolically, perhaps unfairly, who won would frame the season, and help define the state of the UM program in its first season under new coach Mark Richt.

A win and all of the “are they back” talk would have surfaced anew. If this storied college football program being “back” all the way means adding a sixth national-championship trophy, then UM wouldn’t be yet. No, no. But if being back meant national relevance and Top 10-good and the kind of performance it would take to win here Saturday night, then, yeah, the Canes would be close enough to back to touch it. To embrace it.

The No. 10-ranked Canes, with a win, would have rocked to a 5-0 record by beating the one team they most needed to solve in order to chase whatever doubts still were lingering. Florida State may have come in a two-loss team only ranked 23rd in the polls, but for UM this was the nemesis, the litmus test, the high hurdle. FSU had beaten Miami six games in a row entering this game — owned this rivalry all of this decade.

So, if Miami lost, if it squandered a 13-3 halftime leads and dropped a seventh straight game to its rival from Tallahassee, it would feel like “same old same old.” It would feel like miles still to go down that road to Back.

So much frustration and want was pent up inside UM fans this night at The Rock, steam in desperate need of an escape valve. More than a decade off the top of the national stage — a place this program once owned. Six years in a row of losing to instate rival Florida State, a major reason Al Golden was fired.

The Canes on Saturday debuted “new vintage” orange jerseys that were an homage to those worn by the program’s 1980s championship teams. UM also honored its 1991 championship team (the fourth of five) at halftime on that feat’s silver anniversary. It was as if, perhaps by osmosis, Miami was trying to channel the best of its history, summoning an invisible power to help finally beat FSU.

Close. So close.

We could use the Canes to be great again. That would be well-timed.

The Marlins just suffered the tragic loss of Jose Fernandez. The Heat starts anew with no Dwyane Wade. The Dolphins are depressing (again). There’s been a lot of down in local sports. Allow the Canes to make you smile — if they can.

It’s been a little while.

Miami had not trailed at any point in any of its five games this season until FSU scored to go ahead late in the third quarter. UM entered Week 6 of the college season as one of only two teams (Boise State) to not trail all season, in fact.

But this was the first of Miami’s five games that was a true test, a real challenge. UM was a nominal three-point favorite at home.

The Seminoles’ supposedly lousy defense, giving up an average of 35 points coming in, was solid enough Saturday. So was Miami’s, at least for much of the game.

But as midnight hit and the game ended, a Canes fan could still see that road sign with the single word on it, BACK, and the arrow pointing straight ahead.

The distance to get there and the time it would take, though — that remained unknown.

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