An athlete who says he’s the best there is in college football should have to back it up in a bowl game. And Monday night, Deion Sanders, who calls himself Prime Time, finally did.
In the last 5 seconds of the 55th Sugar Bowl, the Auburn Tigers were on the move to what would have been the winning touchdown when they were interrupted in the end zone by Sanders, Florida State’s All-American cornerback.
The swift, sure-handed Seminole stepped in front of Auburn’s best receiver, Lawyer Tillman, to intercept quarterback Reggie Slack’s last pass, preserving a 13-7 victory for Florida State before a Superdome crowd of 61,934.
“It was like a storybook ending,” Sanders said. “No quarterback can pick on me.”
Two extraordinary offensive players, quarterback Chip Ferguson and tailback Sammie Smith, made the plays in the Seminoles’ 10-0 first quarter, when Florida State (11-1) drove 84 yards to its only touchdown and kicked its first field goal.
But most of the drama was in the scoreless second half, when these teams played outstanding football, only to be stopped every time by two well-coached defensive teams.
Auburn (10-2) got last turn. Taking the ball at the Auburn 4-yard line with 3:28 left, Slack moved the Tigers down the field with one accurate pass after another against Florida State’s prevent defense.
On three occasions on that drive, Slack came up to fourth down--fourth and 9, fourth and 4 and fourth and 6--and converted every one.
And at least twice on that long Auburn march, Sanders made weak defensive plays to keep Slack in the saddle--once on a pass to Tillman and again when Slack found Freddy Weygand.
But on the game’s biggest play, Sanders reacted with professional skill. On third and 10, after Slack advanced Auburn to the Florida State 22-yard line with 7 completions, Tillman came open in the end zone as his quarterback fired the ball toward him on a line.
Momentarily beaten, or so it seemed, Sanders used his speed to get in front of Tillman anyway and get the ball as Tillman waited for it.
“We were in man-to-man coverage and I was trailing (Tillman) by 2 or 3 steps,” Sanders said. “So I was able to come up with the game’s big play.”
Said Slack: “We were in our 2-minute offense, taking what Florida State would give us. We played pretty well on that last series. We just came up a little short.”
Auburn Coach Pat Dye reversed, at times, his conservative strategy of last year, when the Tigers kicked a field goal on the last play of the 54th Sugar Bowl to tie Syracuse, 16-16.
But in the end this time, Dye didn’t have quite enough offense although he kept speaking proudly of his defensive team.
“Our defense was the best in the nation tonight,” he said, “giving up only 13 points to an offensive team like Florida State.
There were three good reasons why the Seminoles scored but 13.
For one thing, Florida State was offside when Smith ran 69 yards to a touchdown with a short pass by Ferguson in the third quarter.
On another occasion, Bobby Bowden, Florida State’s impetuous coach, called for a fake field goal at Auburn’s 2. Ferguson’s pass was knocked away.
And at the end of the third quarter, Florida State drove 85 yards through the Auburn defense without scoring when, on third and goal at the Auburn 2, Bowden sent in a fake buck lateral. When Ferguson lateraled it out toward Smith, he threw it wildly and Auburn recovered.
“It definitely would have been my fault if we’d lost the game,” Bowden said.
Anyone who saw just the first several minutes would have sworn that Florida State won it, 50-0.
As Bowden came out running, his team swept to a touchdown on its first series and immediately added a field goal as Auburn came up with the first of four first-half turnovers.
“The things in the first quarter totally shocked me,” Dye said. “I’ve never been in a football game like this one.”
It was Sammie Smith who shocked him the most. The 225-pound Seminole tailback, who didn’t have quite the season he had in 1987, showed speed and power on most of his 24 runs for 115 yards.
Not since 1986 had Auburn allowed 100 yards to a back.
“We were playing too cautiously (in the first quarter),” said Tracy Rocker, Auburn’s All-American defensive lineman. “We weren’t coming off the ball. We weren’t doing the attacking. We did a better job later.
Better, but not enough.
“We were preseason No. 1, and I think we justified those votes tonight,” Bowden said.
It was a night when Florida State insisted on building the suspense. With a chance to add 21 points to the 7 they got in the first 7 minutes, the Seminoles scored only two field goals after Auburn’s three quick turnovers at the Tiger 18, 29 and 38-yard lines.
This kept Auburn alive until it could drive 51 yards to its only touchdown in the second quarter, when Slack passed 20 yards into the end zone to tight end Walter Reeves, who beat Sanders.
“Auburn tricked us on that touchdown,” Sanders said. “Basically, it was my fault.”
Make that entirely. Sanders lined up at left corner on the play, but Florida State had stationed both of its wide receivers on the other side, leaving nobody for Sanders to watch except tight end Reeves.
At the snap, when Slack faked a pitchout to his left, Sanders went with the fake, racing toward the center of the field. That’s where he was when Ferguson, still clutching the ball, rolled to his right and threw deep to Reeves at the 5-yard line.
Sanders recovered and got to Reeves just in time to allow the big tight end to carry him into the end zone.
Otherwise, Sanders played passably in a game in which another Florida State defensive back, free safety Stan Shiver, made most of the spectacular plays the crowd expected of Sanders.
Bowden showcased Smith despite the possibly that Smith will defect to the pros next season. He has another year of college eligibility.
Ferguson completed 14 of 26 passes for Florida State. Most of his misses were drops. So were many of Slack’s passes. It was a nervous game. Even Sanders, for a while, was nervous. But not at the end.