CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- A national championship football team on Tobacco Road? Never, was the answer shouted by Florida State last night.
No. 5 North Carolina was the host of what was billed as the biggest game in Atlantic Coast Conference history. There was a national television audience, an overflow crowd of 62,000 at Kenan Stadium, thousands of party-crashers roaming Franklin Street, and business as usual for No. 3 Florida State.
The Seminoles (9-0, 7-0) celebrated coach Bobby Bowden's 68th birthday with a resounding 20-3 victory, and the only conclusion was that the ACC is still Florida State and the Other Eight. Since entering the conference in 1992, the Seminoles have 46 wins and just one loss, two years ago at Virginia.
When the pollsters sort out Nebraska, Michigan and Florida State today, the Seminoles could be No. 1, 2 or 3. If Florida State beats Wake Forest at home next Saturday and wins at Florida on Nov. 22, it would be in line to meet Nebraska in the Orange Bowl, this season's national championship game as designated by the Bowl Alliance.
The Tar Heels (8-1, 5-1) thought they had a chance to become the first team from North Carolina to win a national football title. They claimed that their defense was just as fast and nasty as that of the Seminoles, who thought otherwise. It's no coincidence that Florida State has two shutouts since 1994, this year against hated rival Miami, and last year against the Tar Heels.
"We had a lot to prove," said middle linebacker Daryl Bush, one of the captains who implored Bowden to proclaim it a "sod game," meaningful enough for the Seminoles to take home a grass memento. "Since the beginning of the season, all we've heard about is their [North Carolina's] defense. That's a big motivator for us."
How dominant were Bush and company? After 24 minutes and six possessions, North Carolina had one first down and 1 yard of total offense. The Tar Heels didn't convert a third down until there was 2: 30 left in the third quarter. Quarterbacks Oscar Davenport and Chris Keldorf were sacked nine times.
North Carolina finished with 73 yards, its fewest since 1950.
There were three turnovers in the first four minutes, but while North Carolina's attack never found anything resembling a rhythm, Florida State gave Thad Busby enough time to hook up with a group of receivers who are every bit as acrobatic as the high-wire walkers Florida's national championship team sent out last season.
The Tar Heels are supposed to have the best set of corners in the country in Dre Bly and Robert Williams, but Peter Warrick and E. G. Green burned them on some pivotal plays.
"No other team has as many good players as Florida State," said Bly, an All-American. "I don't think anybody could've beaten Florida State today."
The Seminoles got stuffed on their first three possessions, but Warrick beat Williams for a 17-yard catch and run in the ninth minute that got the Seminoles rolling. It began a seven-play, 55-yard drive that ended with an 8-yard touchdown pass to tight end Melvin Pearsall.
The Seminoles made it 14-0 on a spectacular 14-yard catch by Green in the left corner of the end zone. Green looked over one shoulder, Busby threw over the other, but the senior twisted and caught the ball with just his left hand.
Florida State even won on special teams. That second touchdown was set up by a short kick by North Carolina punter Brian Schmitz, and the Seminoles got to him the next time. When Brian Allen broke through, it was the fifth FSU block of a North Carolina punt in their last three meetings.
Sebastian Janikowski, the former Polish soccer star, cleaned up that chance with a 32-yard field goal, and hit a 40-yarder on Florida State's first possession of the second half. The offense was done scoring, but the defense never let up.
"He [Davenport] was really getting on his offensive line, to give him more time," Seminoles defensive lineman Andre Wadsworth said. "His line was yelling back, saying 'you're holding the ball too long.' As a team, they self-destructed."
Davenport saw his season end with six minutes left in the third quarter, when his right ankle was fractured on a sack. Keldorf, No. 1 at the start of the season before he lost the job with some shaky play, drove the Tar Heels 40 yards to the Seminoles' 22-yard line, but they settled with a 46-yard field goal by Josh McGee with 13: 34 left.
There was a budding quarterback controversy in Tallahassee in September, but sophomore Dan Kendra has never gotten a chance.
Busby is 19-1 as a starter, the only loss coming in last year's national championship game against Florida. If Florida State can avenge that loss, Jan. 2 will bring a shot at another national championship, a setting where the Seminoles feel right at home.
"That's what you come to Florida State for," Wadsworth said. "The big game."
.................. Conference ...... Overall
............... W L ... Pct ... W L .... Pct
Fla. St. ...... 7 0 .. 1.000 .. 9 0 .. 1.000
UNC ........... 5 1 ... .833 .. 8 1 ... .888
Virginia ...... 5 2 ... .714 .. 6 3 ... .666
Clemson ....... 4 3 ... .571 .. 6 3 ... .666
Ga. Tech ...... 3 3 ... .500 .. 4 4 ... .500
W. Forest ..... 3 4 ... .428 .. 5 5 ... .500
N.C. State .... 2 5 ... .285 .. 4 5 ... .444
Maryland ...... 1 6 ... .142 .. 2 8 ... .200
Duke .......... 0 6 ... .000 .. 2 7 ... .222
N.C. State 45, Maryland 28
Florida St. 20, North Carolina 3
Clemson 26, Duke 20, OT
Virginia 35, Georgia Tech 31
Wake Forest 28, Rutgers 14
Wake Forest at Florida St, noon
Virginia at N.C. State, noon
Georgia Tech at Duke, 1: 30 p.m.
North Carolina at Clemson, 3: 30
Pub Date: 11/09/97