In what is widely deemed the consummate team sport, some singular performances naturally rise above the ensemble.
They’re often executed on a grand stage, and frequently accompanied by high stakes. They vary in style: gallant, gritty, prolific, plucky. Some, regardless of their magnificence, result in defeat.
All result in a degree of immortality.
Today, we’re recognizing 50 of them: the greatest single-game performances in Florida college football history.
The list, compiled by a panel of current and former Tampa Bay Times staffers, is the second of three installments in our observance of college football’s 150th anniversary. It follows our look at the state’s 50 greatest players.
Criteria included a player’s statistics for the game in question, the stakes involved, and the clutch factor (i.e. game-winning field goal). As you’ll find, victory wasn’t a prerequisite for this list; some players were masterful in defeat.
A word of caution: Our rankings could make you smile or swear, or both. They’re intended to jog memories, elicit conversation and entertain.
Just like the performances themselves.
1. Charlie Ward at Florida (Nov. 27, 1993)
A bulletproof aura surrounded “The Swamp,” the nickname given to Ben Hill Griffin Stadium by Steve Spurrier himself, when Florida State arrived there for the ultra-hyped ’93 season finale.
In 23 previous home games under Spurrier, Florida hadn’t lost. During that span, Auburn twice had met its mortality on Florida Field. So had Tennessee. The 1991 Alabama team’s lone loss was a 35-0 humiliation in Gainesville.
But on this overcast Saturday afternoon, before what was then the largest crowd to witness a football game in the state (85,507), Ward and the top-ranked ’Noles never seemed to get rattled.
Instead, they got rolling.
Ward went 25-for-35 in the first half, then tossed a pair of scoring passes to Kez McCorvey in the third quarter to give FSU a 20-point lead. But the Gators clawed back, cutting their deficit to 27-21 when Jack Jackson juggled, then secured a tipped pass in the end zone with 5:58 to play.
One of the most endearing images in ’Noles football history ensued. After getting consecutive passes batted at his own 21, Ward took a third-and-10 snap under center, scrambled to his left when UF brought pressure up the middle, and lofted a flare pass over a linebacker to tailback Warrick Dunn.
Dunn got a block near his 40, then out-sprinted his pursuing defenders all the way down the left sideline for a 79-yard touchdown, securing a 33-21 FSU triumph.
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“It was just a fabulous play,” FSU coach Bobby Bowden said. “You had two great football players and that’s what it takes to win big games: big-time players making big-time plays.”
Ward’s final numbers: 38-for-53, 446 yards, four touchdowns. Two weeks later, Ward won the Heisman Trophy. Three weeks after that, he and the ’Noles would edge Nebraska in the Orange Bowl to give Bowden his first national title.
“I thought we were in big trouble (after UF rallied),” Bowden said. “But we had Charlie Ward.”
2. Peter Warrick, Sugar Bowl vs. Virginia Tech (Jan. 4, 2000)
During his dazzling senior season Warrick scored touchdowns via run, pass, reception and punt return. Fittingly, his final college game seems a microcosm of that multi-dimensional skill set.
The former Bradenton Southeast star had six receptions for 163 yards and three touchdowns, including a 59-yard punt-return score, as the Seminoles defeated Michael Vick-led Virginia Tech, 46-29, to win Bobby Bowden’s second national title.
Warrick, who had a combined five catches and zero touchdowns in three previous bowl games, capped the victory on a 43-yard scoring catch from Chris Weinke (despite clear interference by a Tech defender) with 7:42 remaining.
He was named Sugar Bowl MVP, and his 20 points scored set what was then a Sugar Bowl record.
“I’ve never been this focused,” Warrick told reporters afterward. “I just asked God, ‘Let me have the best game of my life.’ And I thought He did.”
3. Steve Spurrier vs. Auburn (Oct. 29, 1966)
The details of Spurrier’s 60-minute masterpiece as a Gators player almost sound like a fairy tale — part reality, part myth. But they’re true.
And collectively, they provided Spurrier’s momentum for winning the Heisman Trophy.
Spurrier completed 27 of 40 passes for 259 yards, throwing for a touchdown and running for another, in Florida’s 30-27 victory. But seared in Gators lore is the image of Spurrier waving off Wayne Barfield, the Gators’ regular place-kicker, and staying on the field to boot a winning 40-yard field goal with 2:12 remaining.
“Steve Spurrier was the definition of a winner,” former UF coach Ray Graves said in 2006, during a reunion of 1960s-era Gators. “Nothing he did surprised me because he was the kind of player who could do anything. To come through like that, I’d call it typical Spurrier.”
Fittingly, that game’s footnote includes more footwork: Spurrier, who routinely worked on field goals during practice, was also Florida’s regular punter. He had six punts for a 47.4-yard average.
4. Edgerrin James vs. UCLA (Dec. 5, 1998)
By the mid 1990s, the “U” stood for unwatchable.
Crippling NCAA sanctions had sucked the swagger and formidability out of UM’s program, as evidenced by a 66-13 loss at Syracuse only a week before the No. 3-ranked Bruins arrived at the Orange Bowl.
But on a balmy December afternoon, before a modest audience of 46,819, the ’Canes re-entered the national consciousness and, for all intents, started the second term of their national reign.
Leading the resurgence was James, who ran for a school-record 299 yards (and three touchdowns) on a school-record-tying 39 carries in a 49-45 ’Canes upset.
James’ 45-yard TD in the first quarter gave UM a 7-0 lead, and his 1-yarder with 50 seconds to play clinched the triumph. By halftime, he already had amassed 173 yards.
“That’s as tired as I’ve ever been, but I promised myself that I wasn’t going to come out,” James said. “When the coaches quit giving the ball to you, that means you have to block.”
5. Willis McGahee vs. Virginia Tech (Dec. 7, 2002)
A second straight trip to the BCS national title game (at the Fiesta Bowl) was on the line for Miami when 18th-ranked Virginia Tech came to the Orange Bowl in the ’02 regular-season finale.
Turned out, the ’Canes rode McGahee all the way to Tempe.
The sophomore from Miami, who recorded 10 100-yard rushing efforts in 2002, ran 39 times for 205 yards and a school-record six touchdowns in a wild 56-45 triumph.
“He’s something,” Tech coach Frank Beamer said. “He’s a good running back; tough, patient and strong.”
His most impressive series, oddly, ended up with someone else scoring. Thanks to a couple of interceptions, Virginia Tech cut its deficit to 11 points late in the third quarter. On the ensuing drive, McGahee ran nine times on an 11-play TD possession to seal things.
“McGahee is the best back I’ve ever seen, ever played with,” ’Canes center Brett Romberg told reporters afterward. “He always does his job. You know if you just give him the littlest bit of room, he’ll make his own hole. There’s no words to describe him.”
6. Danny Wuerffel, SEC title game vs. Alabama (Dec. 7, 1996)
Wuerffel entered Atlanta knowing the No. 11 Crimson Tide would be a big test. “I think they had one of the best-rated pass defenses in the history of the world, as they always seem to,” Wuerffel said recently. He carved them up anyway. After the No. 4 Gators fell behind 14-0, Wuerffel threw three touchdowns in a seven-minute span to give UF a lead. With UF clinging to a three-point lead late in the third quarter, Wuerffel hit Jacquez Green for a game-changing 85-yard touchdown. He finished 401 passing yards and six TDs, both SEC title game records that still stand, as the Gators prevailed, 45-30.
RELATED STORY: ‘You clear your dishes like everybody else. I don’t care if you threw six touchdown passes yesterday.'
7. Vinny Testaverde vs. Oklahoma (Sept. 27, 1986)
Shaky through the first three games of ’86 (six touchdowns, five interceptions), Testaverde found his groove on a steamy September afternoon against the top-ranked Sooners. The eventual Heisman winner finished 21-for-28 for 261 yards, four touchdowns and no picks in second-ranked UM’s 28-16 victory. In one stretch, Testaverde completed 14 consecutive passes and went 9-for-9 (for 129 yards) in the decisive third quarter, when UM scored three touchdowns.
8. Quinton Flowers at UCF (Nov. 24, 2017)
The highest-ranked performance in a losing effort. On an overcast Black Friday, an ABC audience saw Flowers at his most quintessential: USF’s senior quarterback scrambled, slung and generally willed the Bulls to a 42-all tie in the waning moments against the undefeated Knights. Mike Hughes’ 95-yard kick return with 1:28 to go clinched a wild 49-42 UCF triumph, but no fan — whether bedecked in green and gold or black and gold — could argue who distinguished himself as the best player on the field. Flowers scored five touchdowns and set USF single-game records for total yards (605) and passing yards (503) in defeat.
MORE USF: A look at Quinton Flowers’ school records...all 37 of them
9. Emmitt Smith at Alabama (Sept. 19, 1987)
Smith’s football legacy became secure after three Super Bowl rings, eight Pro Bowl appearances and the NFL’s career rushing record with the Dallas Cowboys. But he entered the national consciousness as a Florida freshman. In his third college game, Smith galloped for 224 yards on 39 carries in a 23-14 victory against Alabama at Legion Field. It broke UF’s 57-year-old single game rushing record (218 yards by Red Bethea against the University of Chicago in 1930). Smith broke a 6-all tie with a 30-yard touchdown in the third quarter, then later added a 1-yard plunge.
10. Wilber Marshall vs. USC (Sept. 11, 1982)
In a Florida program best known for three Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks, Marshall arguably stands as the Gators’ most distinguished defensive player. His headline moment is unmistakable. In a 17-9 home victory against USC, Marshall was omnipresent. He had 14 tackles, constantly running sideline to sideline and thwarting USC’s fabled “Student Body Left, Student Body Right” running attack. He also had four sacks, including a game-closing stop of quarterback Sean Salisbury when the Trojans had driven within striking distance. USC coach John Robinson declared Marshall was “the best linebacker I’ve ever seen.”
11. Danny Kanell vs. Florida (Nov. 26, 1994)
Technically, it was a tie — FSU 31, Florida 31. But this was the “Choke at Doak,” where the Seminoles stormed back from a 31-3 fourth-quarter deficit to forge an unforgettable stalemate in the era before overtime. Kanell, FSU’s quarterback, felt like a big winner. He completed 40 of 53 passes for 421 yards — going 18-for-22 for 239 yards in the fourth quarter alone — to lead a riveting tragic-to-magic turnaround. “We were getting our butts kicked,” Kanell said. “There was nothing to lose. After that, it was like playing in the schoolyard. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
12. Jameis Winston at Pitt (Sept. 2, 2013)
Winston, FSU’s redshirt freshman quarterback, was practically perfect in his college debut, a 41-13 victory against the Panthers, who returned eight starters on a defense that finished in the nation’s top 20. Winston finished 25-for-27 for 356 yards and four touchdowns, setting the school’s completion-percentage record (92.6) for a single game. In the first half alone, he was 17-for-18 for 240 yards (the lone incompletion on a disputed play when receiver Kenny Shaw appeared to have a foot inbounds). It was the start of big things; Winston, who won the Heisman Trophy, led the Seminoles to a 14-0 mark and the national championship.
13. Kerwin Bell vs. Auburn (Nov. 1, 1986)
Because Florida was on probation, this game against the No. 5-ranked Tigers wasn’t televised, causing most of Gator Nation to miss arguably the most courageous effort on this list. Nursing strained knee ligaments, Bell watched as Auburn pounced on a succession of turnovers to take a 17-0 lead. Bum leg and all, he was inserted by coach Galen Hall late in the first half, threw a pick, then led one of the greatest comebacks in UF lore. Bell’s 10-yard scoring pass to Ricky Nattiel (playing with a separated shoulder) with 36 seconds to play cut the Gators’ deficit to 17-16. On the ensuing two-point try, he was flushed from the pocket and hobbled to his left before lunging into the end zone for the winner. Bell finished 17-for-31 for 182 yards, a touchdown, two picks, and one surreal scramble.
RELATED: Kerwin Bell assumes ‘total control’ of USF offense
14. Alex Brown vs. Tennessee (Sept. 18, 1999)
Four days before the reigning national champs came to the Swamp, Brown sent a clear, cocksure message to Vols quarterback Tee Martin. “We’re going to lay the hat on him all night,” the rangy defensive end told reporters, “and it’s just going to be a lovely afternoon.” Brown’s words were considered brash — even boorish — for a sophomore on a suspect unit, but he fulfilled them with Namath-like aplomb. In his finest game as a Gator, Brown exploited UT’s telegraphed offensive cadences by sacking Martin five times. He also intercepted him once, batted two passes and forced a fumble in fourth-ranked UF’s 23-21 triumph against the No. 2 Vols.
15. Tim Tebow, Sugar Bowl vs. Cincinnati (Jan. 1, 2010)
Tebow’s sideline tears became an enduring memory as Florida was defeated by Alabama in the SEC Championship Game, denying the Gators a shot at the national title. But Tebow’s Gators era wasn’t quite done. In his final college game, he sliced and diced the previously unbeaten Cincinnati Bearcats during a 51-24 romp at the Sugar Bowl. Tebow set Sugar Bowl and BCS bowl-game records with 533 yards of total offense, including 482 yards passing (completing 31 of his 35 attempts) and three touchdowns, along with 51 rushing yards and another score.
16. Shaquem Griffin vs. Auburn (Jan. 1, 2018)
The most inspirational player in Knights history — or is it state history -— saved his grandest performance for the grandest stage. In a 34-27 Peach Bowl triumph that would lend significant credibility to UCF’s unblemished season, the Lakewood High alumnus had a career-best 12 tackles (3.5 for loss), 1.5 sacks and 10 — 10! — quarterback pressures.
MORE UCF: Why linebacker Shaquem Griffin lived in UCF’s football facility
17. Derrick Harvey, BCS title game vs. Ohio State (Jan. 8, 2007)
It was one of the Gators’ finest football moments — Florida 41, top-ranked Ohio State 14 for the national title at Glendale, Ariz. — and a complete desert swarm. Ohio State was limited to 82 total yards and Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Troy Smith was a Buckeye in the headlights. Harvey, a sophomore defensive end, had three tackles for a loss and three sacks against Smith, who previously had been sacked only 14 times all season. “I think we rattled Troy Smith,” said Harvey, the game MVP. “He looked a little dazed out there.”
18. Bernie Kosar, Orange Bowl vs. Nebraska (Jan. 1, 1984)
Kosar threw for 300 yards and overcame trickery to lead Miami to a stunning 31-30 victory against the top-ranked, seemingly invincible Cornhuskers for the national title. Nebraska coach Tom Osborne had two defensive backs switch jerseys midway through the game to try to confuse Kosar, but the redshirt freshman overcame the scheme and helped put his team up 31-17 before the Huskers’ furious rally came up just short. Kosar was named the game’s MVP, his passing yardage total setting what was then an Orange Bowl record.
19. Ron Sellers vs. Wake Forest (Nov. 23, 1968)
Not a single receiver in the procession of pass-catching talent that followed Sellers at FSU has been able to replicate what this 6-foot-4 Jacksonville native pulled off against the Demon Deacons. Sellers’ 260 receiving yards in this 42-24 ’Noles triumph remains an FSU single-game record, and his 14 receptions were two shy of his own single-game mark. More on him later in this list.
20. Chris Weinke at Miami (Oct. 7, 2000)
Despite a sprained left foot that kept him out of practice until Thursday, Weinke passed for 496 yards and three touchdowns in FSU’s 27-24 loss. He tossed two of his three touchdowns in the final 3:15 and moved the ’Noles to within field-goal range in the waning moments, only to have Wide Right III (a missed 49-yarder by Matt Munyon) transpire.
21. Freddie Solomon vs. Miami (Sept. 28, 1974)
The greatest player in University of Tampa history totaled 285 yards (182 passing, 103 rushing) in a 28-26 loss to the No. 20 Hurricanes before more than 40,000 fans at the old Tampa Stadium. The performance prompted ’Canes coach Pete Elliott to call Solomon “the finest football player in the country today. No doubt about it. He’s the biggest threat I’ve seen on a football field.”
22. Chris Weinke vs. Clemson (Nov. 4, 2000)
On the evening’s second series, with his team up by a field goal, Weinke — FSU’s 28-year-old Heisman hopeful — dropped back in his own end zone and casually lofted a play-action pass to receiver Marvin “Snoop” Minnis. Isolated in the middle of the field, Minnis raced for a 98-yard touchdown that remains tied for the longest scoring pass in ’Noles history. As for Weinke? He was just getting warmed up. By the end of this 54-7 annihilation of the No. 10 Tigers, he had gone 27-for-43 for 521 yards (second-most in FSU history).
23. Jalen Ramsey vs. Miami (Oct. 10, 2015)
Good luck finding a more dominant all-around performance than this one. The superstar defensive back forced a fumble on Miami’s first offensive snap. He blocked an extra point later and helped the Seminoles climb back from a 23-7 first-half deficit with three tackles (one for a loss) and four pass breakups. Finally, Ramsey sealed FSU’s 30-26 victory by intercepting Brad Kaaya in the red zone inside the final minute. The win sealed a fifth consecutive ACC Atlantic Division title for the ’Noles and extended FSU’s win streak to 26 games.
24. Carlos Alvarez at Miami (Nov. 29, 1969)
One of Coach Ray Graves’ “Super Sophs,” Alvarez’s heroics in a 35-16 triumph at the Orange Bowl led to a pile of records. His 237 receiving yards set a single-game SEC mark that stood for 20 years and still ranks second in UF history. His 15 catches also tied the conference mark. His two touchdown catches gave him 12 for the season, which also set a new SEC record that wasn’t topped until 1982. UF’s 19-point win was its third-largest margin of victory over Miami at the time and helped the Gators win nine games for the third time in program history.
25. Quinton Flowers at Memphis (Nov. 12, 2016)
In Flowers’ catalogue of classic performances, this one ranks second in our eyes. On a cool November night at the Liberty Bowl, Flowers became one of only 14 Division I-A quarterbacks to run and pass for 200 yards in the same game in a wild 49-42 Bulls triumph. On his winning score with 4:56 to play, he took a shotgun snap, ran smack into tailback Marlon Mack in the backfield, broke a shoestring tackle in the pocket, dashed outside to his right and broke another tackle for a 22-yard touchdown. Flowers’ final numbers: 210 rushing, 263 passing yards, five total touchdowns.
MORE USF: Quinton Flowers’ top 10 plays at USF
26. Peter Warrick at Clemson (Sept. 20, 1997)
This was the day Warrick, FSU’s sophomore wide receiver, introduced himself to the nation as a difference-making performer. The Seminoles defeated Clemson 35-28 in an early-season ACC showdown with Warrick putting on one of the all-time greatest shows ever witnessed at Death Valley. He had eight catches for 249 yards, another 123 punt-return yards and three total touchdowns. In the fourth quarter alone, Warrick produced a 90-yard punt-return score and an 80-yard TD reception, which provided the winning margin. “It was Pete’s day,” fellow Seminoles receiver E.G. Green said.
27. Ike Hilliard vs. Tennessee (Sept. 16, 1995)
Nine seconds before halftime, Hilliard — a lean sophomore from Louisiana — hauled in an 11-yard Danny Wuerffel pass in the corner of the end zone, cutting the Gators’ deficit to nine points. Unbeknownst to the Ben Hill Griffin Stadium audience of 85,105, that touchdown would launch the wettest, wildest comeback in Florida Field history. Hilliard also scored the first two TDs of the second half — 6- and 15-yarders from Wuerffel — as the Gators scored 48 unanswered points in a 62-37 romp that featured a heavy September shower in the final stages. Hilliard’s stat line: nine catches, 112 yards, four TDs.
28. Kelvin Benjamin at Florida (Nov. 30, 2013)
Benjamin etched himself into FSU lore when he soared into the Pasadena sky to grab a 2-yard touchdown pass that beat Auburn to win the national championship, but his best overall performance came a few weeks earlier in Gainesville. Against a talented UF secondary (that included future NFL employees Vernon Hargreaves and Brian Poole), Benjamin finished with nine catches for 212 yards and three touchdowns in a 37-7 ’Noles romp. He personally outgained the entire Gators offense by 19 yards with an output that still ranks among the 10 most prolific in school history.
29. B.J. Daniels at FSU (Sept. 26, 2009)
Call him the Homecoming king. When USF lost quarterback Matt Grothe to a season-ending injury, it turned to Daniels, a redshirt freshman and Tallahassee native, for the Bulls’ game at No. 18 FSU. What ensued was strictly a Hollywood story: Daniels passed for 215 yards and two touchdowns, while rushing for 126 more, as USF pulled off a 17-7 upset. Daniels, the only player ever to earn the Tallahassee Democrat’s Big Bend Player of the Year for football and basketball in the same season, was a well-established local legend. Before the game, he looked up to his family’s seats at Doak Campbell Stadium, where he grew up cheering for the Seminoles. Then he promptly broke FSU’s heart with a memorable performance.
30. Dalvin Cook vs. Miami (Oct. 10, 2015)
It wasn’t Cook’s best statistical performance, just one of his most important ones. Playing against his hometown ’Canes, Cook exploded for 222 rushing yards on only 22 carries (while adding three catches for 47 yards). The biggest of his three touchdowns came with 6:44 to play, when he ripped off the go-ahead 23-yarder that gave FSU a 29-23 victory. The performance is still the seventh-best single-game rushing total in program history and the most ever by an FSU player against Miami.
31. McKenzie Milton, AAC title game vs. Memphis (Dec. 2, 2017)
Milton’s implausible 2017 season also was imperfect at times. Case in point: this defensively-challenged melee at Spectrum Stadium, for which the sophomore from Hawaii was named most outstanding player. Milton tossed three picks (including one in the end zone and another at the Memphis 1-yard line) but compensated with 562 total yards in a 62-55 Knights double-overtime triumph. Milton’s 494 passing yards were the second-most in program history, and all five of his touchdown throws covered at least 24 yards.
32. Blake Bortles, Fiesta Bowl vs. Baylor (Jan. 1, 2014)
The biggest underdogs in BCS bowl-game history (16.5 points), the Knights sent a seismic rumble across the collegiate landscape and recorded their biggest triumph to that point with a wild 52-42 upset. In his UCF finale, Bortles shook off a pair of second-quarter picks to earn offensive MVP honors with 394 total yards and four touchdowns. Two of his three TD passes covered 50 and 34 yards, and his 15-yard scoring run early in the fourth period gave the Knights a 14-point cushion.
33. Tim Tebow at South Carolina (Nov. 10, 2007)
Coach Urban Meyer correctly called this “a Heisman performance,” because it ended up helping Tebow become the third Heisman winner in program history. Tebow accounted for all seven UF touchdowns (tying an SEC record) in the 51-31 rout, and his five rushing touchdowns set a Gators record. His 304 passing yards were a career-high, and his 424 total yards of offense are the eighth-best figure ever at UF. Perhaps the most impressive part of it all: He did all this against Steve Spurrier’s Gamecocks without Percy Harvin, who was sidelined with sinus problems.
34. Terrence Horne vs. Georgia Tech (Sept. 8, 2018)
Horne’s rookie season ended prematurely, but not before he delivered one of the most breathtaking kick-return displays in collegiate lore. On a searing Saturday at Raymond James Stadium, the 5-foot-7 freshman from Miramar returned consecutive Georgia Tech kickoffs for touchdowns of 98 and 97 yards in a two-minute, 45-second span in the first period. The feat tied an NCAA single-game record, while his 264 total kick-return yards established USF and American Athletic Conference marks. The mostly-forgotten footnote: Horne also caught a 3-yard TD pass in the fourth quarter as the Bulls rallied for a 49-38 triumph.
35. Danny Wuerffel, Sugar Bowl vs. FSU (Jan. 2, 1997)
After watching Wuerffel get pummeled by FSU’s defense (at the “echo of the whistle”) in Tallahassee five weeks before, Steve Spurrier begrudgingly put his senior quarterback in the shotgun for parts of the SEC title game and this rematch for the national championship. Wuerffel, named the Heisman Trophy winner between those contests, responded with 707 passing yards and nine touchdowns in those eight quarters. In his Sugar Bowl MVP effort, he went 18-for-34 for 306 yards and three TDs in a 52-20 humiliation of the ’Noles. “Danny was absolutely sensational,” Spurrier said afterward. “I think he’s the best quarterback that ever played college football.”
36. J.R. Reed at Memphis (Nov. 29, 2003)
Reed, the former Hillsborough High standout and senior safety, did it all for USF in a 21-16 season-closing victory against Memphis on Thanksgiving weekend. How did this happen? After all, Memphis outgained USF, 458-196. Well, Reed stole it — almost single-handedly. He opened the second half with a 96-yard kickoff-return score. He returned a fumble for another 45-yard touchdown. And he had three interceptions, the final one coming in the end zone after Memphis had driven inside the USF 20-yard line.
37. Mario Edwards at Wake Forest (Nov. 14, 1998)
Edwards was a somewhat unlikely but nonetheless pivotal figure in another top-three season. It wasn’t just the fact that he recorded four interceptions against the Demon Deacons, even though that mark remains an FSU record and the most ever by a freshman in NCAA history. It was what happened afterward: The ’Noles scored after each pick, which means the future Buc rescued FSU in a 24-7 road win. “He had a heck of a dadgum football game,” coach Bobby Bowden said afterward. “Without what he did, we probably would have lost.”
38. Kevin Smith, C-USA title game vs. Tulsa (Dec. 1, 2007)
A junior tailback, Smith capped arguably the greatest offensive season in UCF history (2,567 rushing yards, 29 touchdowns) with arguably the greatest offensive performance. The 6-foot-1, 211-pound Miami native ran for 284 yards and four TDs on 39 carries in a 44-25 triumph at Bright House Networks Stadium (now Spectrum Stadium) to give UCF its first conference crown. “I have coached in the BCS, and I can guarantee you that he is as good as anybody in the country,” Tulsa coach Todd Graham said. “No question about it.”
39. Fred Taylor vs. FSU (Nov. 22, 1997)
Yes, this sturdy speedster fumbled twice in the first quarter, but his ability to shake off the mistakes makes this performance more remarkable. In what many consider the greatest game in Florida Field history, Taylor ran for 162 yards and four touchdowns on 22 carries to help the Gators pull off a 32-29 upset of the previously undefeated ’Noles. His 16-yard run on the Gators’ final drive set up his winning 1-yard touchdown with 1:52 play, and an ensuing interception by Dwayne Thomas sealed it. Granted, posterity likely will focus on Steve Spurrier’s audacious strategy (alternating quarterbacks every play), but Florida simply doesn’t win without Taylor.
40. Percy Harvin, BCS title game vs. Oklahoma (Jan. 8, 2009)
The most underrated performance in state history? Harvin proved to be the most dynamic player on the field in the Gators’ 24-14 national championship victory, totaling 170 yards (121 rushing, 49 receiving) with a hairline fracture in his leg. His 52-yard run swung the momentum in favor of the Gators after Oklahoma tied the game. So why don’t more people talk about Harvin’s performance? Well, the game capped Tim Tebow’s prophetic promise to Florida fans following a regular-season loss to Ole Miss, and he sealed his legacy with 340 yards of offense. But Harvin had the better game.
41. Peter Tom Willis, Fiesta Bowl vs. Nebraska (Jan. 1, 1990)
After dropping their first two games of 1989, the fifth-ranked ’Noles won nine in a row and arguably were the nation’s most dangerous team entering this showdown with the No. 6 Cornhuskers. That argument gained more validity on New Year’s Day thanks to Willis, who went 25-for-40 for 422 yards and five touchdowns in a 41-17 FSU romp. The yardage and touchdown totals were Fiesta Bowl records. “He gets better and he has not maxed out,” said FSU coach Bobby Bowden, who watched Willis throw for 210 yards and three TDs in the second quarter alone. “I could not be more proud of a quarterback.”
42. Ed Reed at Boston College (Nov. 10, 2001)
Every great college team must overcome an off day, a game when the spark plugs misfire. Miami’s ’01 national title team had that day on a blustery afternoon in Chestnut Hill, Mass. Boston College appeared poised to upset the ’Canes as it drove for a winning score in the closing seconds, but Reed came to the rescue, taking an interception out of the hands of lumbering defensive line teammate Matt Walters and racing 80 yards for a touchdown. It not only sealed UM’s 18-7 victory, but preserved the championship hopes of what’s now regarded as one of the game’s greatest teams ever.
43. Willis McGahee at Florida (Sept. 7, 2002)
McGahee helped render the first Gators-’Canes regular-season meeting in 15 years mostly anticlimactic, running for 204 yards on 24 carries in UM’s 41-16 romp. Before what was then a Ben Hill Griffin Stadium record crowd (85,777), the sophomore became only the fourth player to eclipse 200 rushing yards against UF. “That’s probably the one thing that surprises me the most of anything — that they did run the football the way they did,” first-year Gators coach Ron Zook said.
44. Keiwan Ratliff at Arkansas (Oct. 18, 2003)
In so many ways, this trip to Fayetteville epitomized the Ron Zook era, with the Gators nearly snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Before the Razorbacks nearly erased a 26-point deficit in the last 7 1/2 minutes, Ratliff gave UF a 33-7 lead via a 44-yard interception return for a touchdown with 8:46 to play. It was Ratliff’s third pick of the afternoon, capping a career game in which he also had nine solo tackles. He jubilantly heaved the ball into the Razorback Stadium seats after his TD return, drawing a penalty that helped set up an ensuing Arkansas touchdown, but the Mighty Zookers still held on for a 33-28 win.
45. Ron Sellers at South Carolina (Oct. 26, 1968)
Roughly a month before his de facto clinic against Wake Forest (see No. 19), Sellers — Fred Biletnikoff’s sleek successor at FSU — had another monstrous night in this tense 35-28 victory in Columbia. His 16 catches against the Gamecocks remains a ’Noles ‘single-game record, and his 259 yards are one shy of the single-game mark he established against the Demon Deacons. Sellers’ second touchdown of the night, set up by a Steve Gildea interception, tied the score at 28-all late in the third quarter. His third, a 16-yarder from Bill Cappleman on a sideline route, came with 10:15 to go.
46. Marlon Mack vs. Western Carolina (Aug. 30, 2014)
A freshman from Sarasota, Mack was informed by coach Willie Taggart he’d be starting this game — his first as a collegian — an hour or so before kickoff. On that wet evening at Raymond James Stadium, a Bulls legend was spawned. After a 69-minute weather delay, Mack helped USF avoid a second consecutive opening-night upset, running for a school record-tying 275 yards on 24 carries in a 36-31 triumph. Three of his four touchdown runs covered 56 or more yards. “I told our football team before the game that some people show up under the spotlight and some people run away,” Taggart said. “The spotlight came and he showed up and showed out.”
47. Freddie Solomon vs. UT-Chattanooga (Sept. 7, 1974)
Solomon, the University of Tampa’s breathtaking junior quarterback, had plenty of memorable moments in his Spartans career. But against the UT-Chattanooga Mocs, he put on an unforgettable show by rushing for 239 yards (on 15 carries) with touchdown runs of 31, 89 and 65 yards. Solomon, who passed for 58 yards, put the Spartans up 24-17 late in the fourth quarter with his weaving 65-yard TD run. But the Mocs stole the victory, 25-24, by scoring on the game’s final play, then converting on a two-point pass with no time remaining before a stunned Tampa Stadium crowd.
48. Danny Wuerffel vs. Tennessee (Sept. 16, 1995)
In a surreal, storm-drenched game featuring a variety of Gators stars (Ike Hilliard, Lawrence Wright, Terry Jackson), Wuerffel led the ensemble effort. After fumbling twice and throwing an end-zone pick during UF’s first six possessions, the junior collected himself and crafted one of his greatest performances ever. Wuerffel finished 29-for-39 for 381 yards and six touchdowns as the Gators rallied from an early 16-point hole for a 62-37 romp. Subtract the unsightly outset, and his numbers are even more staggering: After his fumble that UT returned for a touchdown to take a 30-14 lead, Wuerffel went 20-for-25 for 243 yards and five TDs.
49. Emmitt Smith vs. New Mexico (Oct. 21, 1989)
The Gator offense already was dimensionally challenged when three quarterbacks — including starter Kyle Morris — were suspended days before this Homecoming contest for betting on college and pro games. As a result, Smith transitioned from the hub of the offense to the whole offense, rushing for a school-record 316 yards and three touchdowns in a 27-21 triumph against the one-win Lobos. Arguably his most critical run came with less than three minutes to play, on third-and-2 at the Gators 21. Lined up in the power-I, Smith bounced off two defenders in the backfield, made a cut and dashed for a 39-yard gain to essentially seal things.
50. Michael Irvin at FSU (Oct. 3, 1987)
In a game featuring 63 — 63! — players who would make an NFL roster, Miami’s brash junior receiver shined in this constellation. Hounded by Deion Sanders most of the day, Irvin broke free for a 29-yard touchdown reception from Steve Walsh with 11:39 to play, trimming UM’s deficit to 19-17 (the ensuing two-point try succeeded). Then with 2:22 remaining, he darted past double coverage, hauled in another Walsh spiral and raced down the right sideline for a 73-yard TD. FSU would score again, but failed on the two-point conversion, preserving UM’s 26-25 victory.
Staff writers Matt Baker and Ernest Hooper, and Times correspondent Joey Johnston, contributed to this report.