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It seems folks always expect an offensive shootout between Florida State and Miami.

For they remember _ or can't forget _ seeing Charlie Ward, on the run to avoid the rush on third and long, hurl an improbable pass over two Hurricane defenders to Matt Frier, who caught it in stride and streaked down the right sideline for a 72-yard touchdown in FSU's 1993 win.

Or they excitedly recount _ or disgustingly mutter _ the play-by-play from 1992 when Gino Torretta, audibilizing from a run, lofted a ball that just settled into the outstretched arms of Lamar Thomas for a 33-yard score and a 17-16 lead. Miami would win 19-16 thanks to "Wide Right II."

They eagerly anticipate _ or fear _ heroics from a Vinny Testaverde, Steve Walsh, Craig Erickson, Brad Johnson, Casey Weldon, Danny Kanell, Alonzo Highsmith, Melvin Bratton, Sammie Smith, Dexter Carter, Michael Irvin, Brian Blades, Lawrence Dawsey or a Tamarick Vanover.

And they pity the defenses.

That's not the case this season.

Oh sure, both the No. 3-ranked Seminoles and the No. 6 Hurricanes have their usual stable of skilled, explosive backs and receivers and highly touted quarterbacks. It just seems that the most dominating are on the other side of the ball:

Miami enters today's showdown at the Orange Bowl as the nation's stingiest defense, conceding just 173.8 yards a game, and top scoring defense, allowing an average of 3.3 points.

FSU is not far behind, keyed by perhaps the top line in the country, ranking third in both key statistical categories with averages of 177.5 yards and 6.8 points.

"Both defenses are so good, the only way somebody's going to score is for somebody to make a mistake," FSU coach Bobby Bowden said. "It's going to be mighty hard for either team to take that football and go 80 yards methodically."

Who'da thunk it from these two?

Especially when both struggled so to stop anyone, let alone each other, last season. The Hurricanes were 35th nationally in total defense, while the Seminoles were 41st.

Yet each returned a majority of its starters and the experience is showing. So is a new intensity.

"Kenny Holmes, Kenard Lang those guys are animals," Miami senior linebacker Twan Russell said of his team's star defensive ends. "They're not caring about their bodies. They're not carrying about who gets the credit. They're just making plays. They're running around and making the linebackers' jobs very easy."

The Hurricanes (4-0) have allowed just one offensive touchdown.

"They have a lot of team speed and they're going to be tough," said FSU junior quarterback Thad Busby, fresh off a career-best passing day of 304 yards and four touchdowns and looking to end a trend of losses to Miami by first-year starters. "But we have to take on that challenge."

That's nothing new, Bowden said. "The great teams Miami has had down through the years were really highlighted by defense, although you didn't hear much about them." Miami finished in the top 10 in total defense seven times from 1986-95.

And yet, the Hurricanes feel slighted as folks point to a heretofore weak lineup of sacrificial lambs: Memphis, The Citadel, Rutgers and Pittsburgh. Together, that not-so Fab Four is 7-13.

"I think people are not giving us our due respect," senior safety Marcus Wimberly said. "We can't help who we play. We just go out there and do our jobs. The defense hasn't been scored on in three games. That has to say something."

It does. Volumes.

As does the Seminoles' performance to date. They have allowed only two offensive touchdowns thanks in large part to the ferocity up front of senior Reinard Wilson and junior Peter Boulware. Wilson just broke All-American Ron Simmons' school sack record and has three this season, one fewer than the entire Miami team. Meanwhile, Boulware, who led the Atlantic Coast Conference in sacks last season with 10, has 8{.

"We want to be known as the best defense in the country. That's our goal, that's our job," Boulware said.

The Seminoles don't just talk about shutouts. Not enough, they say. They want to score as well, a combination that guarantees a win, even if the final score is 2-0.

"It's up to both defenses," Wilson said. "Whichever defense plays the best will win."

He and his teammates wouldn't have it any other way. For although the Seminoles (4-0) believe North Carolina, then ranked No. 11 with the nation's No. 2 defense, was a big test, the Hurricanes loom larger.

Part of that is the history. FSU has lost five straight in the Orange Bowl, failing to win there since 1984. In the past 20 years, Miami has handed FSU its first loss of the season eight times, several of which cost a shot at the national title.

Part of that is the respect the Seminoles have for the historically high-powered UM offense, which features junior quarterback Ryan Clement, the nation's fourth-rated passer, senior tailback Danyell Ferguson and lightning-fast receivers including Magic Benton and Yatil Green.

"They've got better athletes than anybody we've seen," FSU junior middle linebacker Daryl Bush said. "This is a proving ground for us."

Like the Miami of old, the Seminoles say with a shrug. And like the Miami of old, some offensive players boldly predict they can handle the FSU defense.

"I think we can exploit their secondary," said Benton, who originally signed with FSU but did not qualify and later decided to attend UM. "I don't think they are that good. If we can get the running game going, I think it will be an easy game for us."

The offense determining the winner? In this game? Come on.

"What I see is a game that's going to be very low scoring," Bowden said, "unless somebody makes a lot of mistakes or some great player makes some great plays or breaks something or makes something happen to cause that ball to get out of there against these defenses."

_ Staff writer Bob Harig contributed to this report.


FSU (NCAA rank) Miami (rank)

Total defense 177.5 yards (3) 173.8 (1)

Rushing defense 44.5 yards (2) 102.9 (25)

Passing efficiency rating 73.0 (5) 45.4 (1)

Scoring defense 6.8 points (3) 3.3 (1)