Greg Cote

Falling horse and missing Wolverine began Orange Bowl, and scintillating FSU finish closed it

Florida State Seminoles Keith Gavin breaks away from Michigan Wolverines Jordan Lewis as Gavin help set-up the winning touchdown in the fourth quarter in the 2016 Capital One Orange Bowl at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida on Fri., Dec. 30, 2016.
Florida State Seminoles Keith Gavin breaks away from Michigan Wolverines Jordan Lewis as Gavin help set-up the winning touchdown in the fourth quarter in the 2016 Capital One Orange Bowl at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida on Fri., Dec. 30, 2016.

The beginning was bizarre and the end, sublime.

Well, sublime if you’re a fan of Florida State football, great games or thrilling finishes. Something else, perhaps, if you were for Michigan.

The 83rd Orange Bowl and host Miami got itself a game for the ages Friday night in a 33-32 Seminoles upset victory that saw FSU lead throughout, lose that lead late and then dramatically snatch it back.

Michigan’s first and only lead was 30-27 with 1:57 to play. FSU then scored a touchdown with 36 seconds to play, but the extra point was blocked to put the Noles momentarily up 33-30 … until the Wolverines returned that blocked kick the length of the field, counting for two points — even as many confused fans of both teams mistakenly thought it counted as a TD and six points, not certain at first whether to be elated or deflated.

“Man, that’s what I’m telling you about this team right here, man!” said thrilled Florida State running back and game MVP Dalvin Cook afterward. “Whatever we face, we battle back.”

The strange finish was no odder than the start of this bowl game.

There are always new things to experience, no matter how old you are, right? The Orange Bowl game is in its ninth decade, a Miami tradition that started in 1935. But suffice to say no game before this one had begun with such disparate calamity visiting both teams moments before kickoff.

FSU fans beholden to omens must have been filled with dread as their iconic, flaming-spear-wielding mascot, Chief Osceola, was unceremoniously and dangerously thrown to the turf when his spooked horse Renegade bucked backward and fell amid the din of noise — something veteran Seminoles reporters could not remember ever happening before.

Moments later, Michigan announced that its defensive star, best player and Heisman Trophy finalist Jabrill Peppers would miss the game with a hamstring injury sustained the day before and unknown until that moment.

It must be said FSU — rider, horse and team — recovered nicely. Its mascot quickly hopped up, stuck the flaming stick in the ground, remounted the steed and galloped triumphantly off the field.

Michigan did not recover as well, missing Peppers palpably, yet still came within a minute of rallying to win.

Florida State, ranked 11th and a one-touchdown underdog, had raced to a 17-3 lead over No. 6 Michigan by the end of the first quarter, the young men from Tallahassee dominating the guys from Ann Arbor for almost all the game. OB organizers did what they could to make the visitors from Michigan feel comfortable by ordering chilly weather, the temperature at kickoff at 64 degrees. For most of the night, it didn’t help.

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh had felt relegated to the Orange Bowl, believing his Wolverines deserved a final-four spot in one of Saturday’s two College Football Playoff semifinal games.

For most of the game, and ultimately, Jimbo Fisher’s Seminoles had something to say about that. What they said was, “Nope.”

FSU won mostly because something else was unexpected about Friday’s OB, in addition to a falling horse and a missing Wolverine.

The Seminoles’ defense was mostly fantastic — that was unexpected.

Michigan supposedly had the dominating defense, at least when Peppers is assaulting opponents. FSU by contrast had the defense that was beaten for 137 points in the Noles’ three losses this season, and allowed 34 and 35 points in two of the wins.

But the best defense on the field Friday was the doubted one from Tallahassee. It held Michigan to 252 total yards and was not at fault for most of the Wolverines’ points.

FSU also fashioned this upset because, while Michigan was missing Peppers, a dish turned bland by the lack of spice, Florida State was not missing its best player, young Mr. Cook.

It was akin to a home game for Cook, the NFL Draft-bound running back who was born in Miami and went to Central High, and he was reveling in his backyard bowl as some three dozen family and friends cheered him on. Cook’s 28-yard run sparked the opening drive and his 2-yard touchdown began the scoring, while his 45-yard catch set up more points, as did a later, electrifying 71-yard dash along the sideline in front of the Michigan bench. Oh, and a 21-yard catch that sparked the final TD.

Cook would finish with 207 offensive yards, 145 of them on the ground, certainly not regretting that he didn’t skip the bowl like other star collegians worried about injuring themselves.

“Never thought about it,” he said, adding, “To do it in this stadium with my family, it’s the greatest feeling in the world.”

Michigan’s first points were the fault of FSU’s special teams, the gift of a turnover. Nyqwan Murray’s muffed punt return gave the Wolverines the ball at the FSU 1-yard line, but that tenacious defense arose to force the favorites to settle for three points. Murray would soon make amends for his mistake by catching a 92-yard TD pass from Deondre Francois that made it 17-3. Francois, like Cook, considered this a home game, spending much of his childhood in Miami’s Little Haiti or in Miramar, 10 minutes from what is now called Hard Rock Stadium. His uncle played quarterback at Miramar High, kindling in Francois his early interest in the art of the forward pass.

That, by the way, was the longest pass play in Orange Bowl history, and an all-time record sort of means something when your bowl game started during the Great Depression, when your car cost $625 brand new and you filled it for 10 cents a gallon.

Murray would total 104 yards receiving and two TDs.

Seminole fans in garnet and gold outnumbered Michiganders in maize and blue by around a 2-to-1 margin, as you’d expect, and the stadium was filled with 67,432 fans. That also was expected for a better-than-typical OB matchup that had the national heft just short of a CFP semifinal — because both top-tier programs began the season fully expecting to be playing in one of those on Saturday.

The Orange Bowl always puts on a good show, though, no matter the two teams involved, an example of an event able to lean on its tradition and outsize its participants when necessary.

This game is the annual linchpin and crescendo for the Orange Bowl organization, a 360-member, mostly volunteer non-profit that operates less-celebrated events and charitable endeavors throughout the year, doing good work for our community as it has since ’35, when the idea of an annual college football bowl game arose solely to shine a favorable light and promote tourism in Greater Miami.

It worked. The Orange Bowl — this annual game — has become a treasure and a constant in turbulent South Florida. We can count on it.

They razed the namesake Orange Bowl Stadium itself and moved the game, blasphemy at the time. They quietly dropped the word “Classic” from the game’s name. Rented title sponsor names have come and gone, FedEx to Discover to Capital One. No matter.

It’s the Orange Bowl.

Team matchups vary. This game and city have crowned 20 national champions across the decades. A year ago, the OB was host to a CFP semifinal, which we’ll be again the season after next. Other years the OB might be a tougher sell off the national marquee and struggling to spark local interest.

That wasn’t a problem this time, for sure, but, in any case, it’s still the Orange Bowl, always, its heritage and place in college football history secure.

Everything changes, in and out of sports. The PGA Tour’s annual tournament will soon be leaving Doral after more than 50 years. Key Biscayne might be losing its annual pro tennis tournament. It seems like everything in South Florida changes except the Orange Bowl — this one annual tradition so interwoven into what helps define the best of Miami.

Eighty-three games now for the old OB, and Friday’s, strange start to scintillating end, will surely rise among the best of them.

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