A running back from the Southeast gave the team from the Los Angeles area a chance to win Wednesday night's Emerald Bowl, but it was a back from the Los Angeles area who enabled the team from the Southeast to win it.
Florida State tailback Lorenzo Booker, a resident of Oxnard (Ventura County), trumped UCLA tailback and Louisiana native Chris Markey, helping the Seminoles beat the Bruins 44-27 at AT&T Park before an Emerald Bowl-record crowd of 40,331, which is actually more than the stadium's official football capacity.
The result in the first-ever meeting between Florida State and UCLA prevented Florida State (7-6) from having its first losing season since 1976. More important, perhaps, the Seminoles finally resembled the team they were expected to be, the one that was ranked No. 9 in the country two games into this season, and the one that finished ranked in the top five 14 consecutive years from 1987 through 2000.
"There was a lot on the line," Booker said after being named offensive player of the game in his final college appearance. "The whole third quarter, I was thinking 6-7 or 7-6. You don't want to feel like you're part of tearing it down."
Florida State had lost the past five games that were decided by seven points or fewer this season, but this time, the Seminoles came up with the critical plays to overcome a 27-23, fourth-period deficit and win.
"That's what Florida State used to do all the time," Florida State coach Bobby Bowden said after completing his 30th straight winning season with the Seminoles.
The Seminoles' victory was a mild surprise; the bigger surprise was the number of points scored in a game that was expected to be dominated by the defenses.
UCLA mistakes contributed to the Seminoles' offensive outburst. A Markey fumble at the UCLA 2-yard line led to Florida State's first touchdown. A blocked punt resulted in a third-period Florida State touchdown. And Tony Carter turned an interception into an 86-yard touchdown for the Seminoles' final score.
Despite the fumble, Markey did his part in keeping UCLA in the game. He collected 144 rushing yards against a Florida State defense that had yielded only 2.6 yards per rush during the season, sixth best in the country. He had 102 yards in the first half, and it looked like Markey's effort might be enough when the Bruins (7-6) took leads of 20-10 in the first half, and 27-23 in the third period.
Booker was better, though. Although Florida Sate came into the game ranked 103rd nationally in rushing, Booker ran for 91 yards and two touchdowns and also had 117 receiving yards.
"Our game plan was 'Booker, Booker, Booker; let's feed off him like we haven't done all year,' " Bowden said.
Booker had been sharing time at the tailback spot with sophomore Antone Smith most of the season, and Smith had assumed the starting role in the next-to-last game. But Smith dislocated his elbow in that game, leaving the job to Booker.
Booker's 208 yards of total offense on Wednesday was a career high. He had more than 100 rushing yards at one point in the game, but a few losses put him behind the century mark. Booker countered that by scoring a touchdown on a 3-yard run with 6:17 left to push the FSU lead to 37-27.
The Seminoles had taken the lead 31/2 minutes earlier when 6-foot-6 Florida State receiver Greg Carr caught a 30-yard pass from Drew Weatherford on a 4th-and-9 play with 9:46 left. He beat 5-11 cornerback Rodney Van, who fell down trying to defend the taller Seminoles player on the lofted pass.
A pivotal sequence had occurred midway in the third period. Markey would have picked up a first down by running for a yard on a 4th-and-inches play at the UCLA 46-yard line. But the Bruins were penalized 5 yards for illegal motion on the play, and the subsequent fourth-down punt was blocked by Dekoda Watson. The Seminoles' Lawrence Timmons picked up the loose ball and carried it 25 yards for a touchdown to put Florida State ahead 23-20 with 8:58 left in the third period.
UCLA immediately regained the lead with a 57-yard touchdown drive, but Florida State snatched it back on the critical fourth-down touchdown pass by Weatherford.