' ' Cinema Romantico: My Favorite College Football Games: Game 3

Saturday, September 14, 2019

My Favorite College Football Games: Game 3

September 17, 1988: Florida State - 24 Clemson - 21

I frequently think of Bruce Springsteen’s observation about the key to adulthood being holding onto your idealism after you lose your innocence not just where my daily life is concerned but in terms of my college football fandom too. Because if college football became my favorite sport before I was even ten years old, in the years since I’ve become painfully aware of both the sport’s corrupt, shoddy foundation clear and how meaningful reform is continually ignored in favor of building that foundation out, glimpsed not just in ever-augmenting athletic department Xanadus but in these gridiron empires essentially running independent of the academic institutions ostensibly housing them making extreme compromises to maintain their Xanadus, leading to the tragedies of Happy Valley, Pennsylvania and Waco, Texas. The only salvation, really, is in the game itself, though even then external pressure frequently strains out the joy, where even in literally meaningless bowl games coaches opt to punt on fourth and short, so many peripheral factors turning what is supposed to be, as they say, just a game into something else entirely. That’s why on the opening week of the 2019 season when Auburn eschewed settling for a field goal to try and beat Oregon with mere seconds left to unfurl an allegedly heedless pass to the end zone, yielding a touchdown, instead, it was as cleansing as it was cavalier.

When Florida State played Clemson in 1988 the stakes were high. Florida State was ranked 10th but 0-1, having lost to Miami in their first game, meaning one more loss in those glorious pre-conference championship, pre-playoff days meant their championship hopes were kaput. Clemson, ranked 3rd but lesser pedigreed, could not afford even a single loss. Yet if the stakes were high, the game felt less pressurized than joyous, wild, messy, emblemized in the soggy conditions, making it look like a bunch of teenagers that had decided to just keep playing pickup in the backyard through the rain.

Clemson had a wide receiver throw a 61-yard touchdown pass to another wide receiver off a reverse; a 76-yard punt return for a touchdown by Florida State’s Deion Sanders – yeah, him – was a lightning bolt of brilliance. Better yet, Sanders, upon scoring, preened, as was his way, while, after crossing the goal line, Clemson’s receiver celebrated with his team’s Tiger mascot in the back of the end zone and neither of these post-play actions, refreshingly, drew a flag, running counter to our stupid modern times where mascots celebrating with players is considered unsportsmanlike, as if even the referees knew it just a- hold that thought.

With but 1:33 left in the game, tied at 21-21, deep in its own territory, facing a 4th down, Florida State coach Bobby Bowden sent on the punt team. What happened next is lore. Rather than punt, Bowden called for a fake. The specifics are beside the point, though the deception’s design was so ingenious it fooled television, with only one random camera in the stands capturing the complete action, allowing Florida State’s Leroy Butler to sprint 78 yards, down to Clemson’s one-yard line, where they kicked a field goal to win. It was a play tailor-made for the sportscaster chestnut about how the coach is a genius if the play works and a dunce if it fails, though that emphasizes the outcome rather than the decision, which is what has always interested me most here, Bowden against Clemson in 1988 being one of the few times a coach has genuinely met the moment in so much as, like, you know, it was just a game. Because if that’s all it is, well, hells bells, you can nearly hear the famously folksy Bowden shrugging from the sideline, why not call a fake punt?

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