Football Writers Association of America 2001 BEST WRITING CONTEST
COLUMN | ENTERPRISE | FEATURE | GAME | LOOSE DEADLINE

FIRST PLACE: GAME (IMMEDIATE DEADLINE)
Brian Landman, St. Petersburg Times

TALLAHASSEE Florida State quarterback Chris Weinke spent the night before the ballyhooed showdown against Florida hooked up to an IV bag, his team's national championship hopes hitched to his recovery.

"I knew the whole time I was going to do whatever it took to get into this ballgame," he said.

Weinke, a senior and Heisman Trophy candidate, has made a career of comebacks. From a dismal performance at North Carolina State in 1998. From a potential paralyzing neck injury that year. From numerous second-half deficits last season. From a sprained left foot that has hindered him since the end of September.

Could anyone really believe a virus would keep him down and out of the biggest game of the season?

Hardly.

Even though he struggled at times with his normally pinpoint accuracy, Weinke completed 23 of 44 passes for 353 yards and three touchdowns to lead the No. 3-ranked Seminoles to a convincing 30-7 win against the No. 4 Gators Saturday night before a record 83,042 at Doak Campbell Stadium.

"That's what he's given us this season: a leader who was always going to be there and who was always going to play well," FSU coach Bobby Bowden said.

With the win, the Seminoles (11-1) not only extended the nation's longest home winning streak to 35 and their mastery over the Gators to three straight, they likely bolstered their position in the all-important Bowl Championship Series standings.

They trailed Miami, the only team to beat them, by 0.48 points for the coveted second spot. The top BCS teams meet for the national championship in the Jan. 3 Orange Bowl.

"I'll leave it up to the computer," Bowden said. ""That thing better not betray me. I'd rather have the computer decide who plays for the championship than a person who may have some biases."

"That's what it looks like it's going to come down to," Weinke echoed. "But beating the No. 4 team in the country by 23 points should be convincing enough to show people what kind of team we are. I think this is the best football team in the country right now."

The Gators (9-2), who were fourth in the BCS standings and harboring title hopes, will have to settle for a Southeastern Conference title. They meet Western Division champ Auburn on Dec. 2 for a BCS berth in the Sugar Bowl.

"We can still go to Atlanta and get an SEC ring," Florida junior offensive tackle Kenyatta Walker said. "That was our first goal this season."

The attainable goals of both teams easily could have been different.

Weinke had to go to a local hospital Friday and received intravenous fluids from noon-8 p.m. He then spent the night at team physician Kris Stowers' home. There he had IV treatment continuously, receiving 2" liters of a potassium-sugar solution.

"When I was lying in the hospital Friday, I was hoping it was just a 24-hour flu," Weinke said.

Doctors said Weinke would be about 80 percent, a prognosis the Gators might disagree with now.

"Weinke threw the ball very well; I was impressed with him and his receivers," said Florida coach Steve Spurrier, 0-5-1 in Tallahassee.

Weinke capped an impressive opening drive with a 17-yard touchdown strike to junior receiver Atrews Bell, one play after cornerback Bennie Alexander dropped a potential interception.

The Gators answered by borrowing a strategy Miami used so effectively in its upset of the Seminoles: get the ball to the tight end. Florida senior Jesse Palmer, who didn't start but took over for freshman Rex Grossman on the game's second play, went to sophomore tight Aaron Walker for a 21-yard gain on third and 15 and again for a 5-yard touchdown to tie the score.

Weinke needed three plays and 50 seconds to put FSU back up. After a short gain by senior tailback Travis Minor, Weinke hit Bell for 42 yards, then Marvin "Snoop" Minnis for 34 and another touchdown. On the play, Weinke repeatedly and excitedly pumped his right arm toward the Gator bench.

No lack of energy there.

"Obviously, in a game like this, the adrenaline takes over," said Weinke, who saw interceptions by junior defensive end Alex Brown and sophomore free safety Todd Johnson thwart scoring chances.

FSU's defense, however, shut down the Gators' running game and slowed Palmer with a three-man rush, a ploy that befuddled the Gators two years ago.

"If they can get that big-play offense going, you're at their mercy," senior cornerback Tay Cody said. "We just tried to stop that tonight."

The Seminoles defense held UF to 315 yards and one score, both season lows.

Junior fullback William McCray's 1-yard run midway through the third quarter pushed the lead to 21-7. Then Weinke hooked up with Minnis again, this time for a 51-yard touchdown in the final moments of the third quarter. After Cody's 58-yard interception return, freshman Brett Cimorelli closed out the scoring with a 33-yard field goal.

If Weinke needed any fluids afterward, it sure didn't look that way. He and Minnis, who finished with a career-high 187 yards, galloped with a Gator head along the UF bench while their teammates cavorted at midfield.

"I was there to answer the bell every week," Weinke said. "I came back because I love this game and I love to play this game an there's no sweeter way to go out than to beat Florida at home. This is what I came back to do."

Comment from the judge, Kevin Sherrington: A good game story gives more than stats and quotes and running. It must weave perspective, both historical and current, as well as detail that captures the essence of college football, its color and distinctive flavor. The winner managed this in a category where the combination in the competition was sorely lacking.

Second place: Rob Biertempfel, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
Third place: John Helsley, The Daily Oklahoman
Honorable Mention: Chris Dufresne, Los Angeles Times