On his way out of Doak Campbell Stadium's visiting locker room late Saturday, Miami free safety Sean Taylor paused in front of cornerback Al Marshall, who was struggling to dress without using the third and fourth fingers of his left hand, which had been bruised and bloodied on a second-quarter tackle. There was the high five, the hug and then—the admonishment. "Man, what was that?" Taylor barked to his teammate. Marshall knew what Taylor was talking about, a fourth-quarter pass Marshall had deflected but not intercepted, and he smacked his wounded hand on his knee in frustration. "I know it."
"Our policy," Taylor said later, "is that if your toes are still wiggling and you've got a couple fingers still wiggling, you've gotta make the big play."
On a rain-soaked afternoon in Tallahassee, No. 2-ranked Miami's penchant for the big play carried the Hurricanes over favored Florida State to their 38th straight regular-season win. From the opening possession Miami's run-suffocating defensive front dared Seminoles quarterback Chris Rix to throw on the Hurricanes' speedy corners and safeties. Rix might as well have tried to split the raindrops. By the end of the game Miami had intercepted Rix twice, broken up 10 passes and recovered three fumbles. "The guys played like they're capable of," said secondary coach Mark Stoops. "That's something they haven't done yet this year."
With four returning starters the Miami secondary was expected to top its exploits of 2002, when it keyed a pass defense that allowed the fewest yards (119.7 per game) in the nation. Through five wins this season the Hurricanes were ranked a respectable 23rd in that category, but Stoops said his unit "had yet to play a complete game." Aware that Miami would be without injured stalling strong safety Maurice Sikes, the Seminoles had a game plan not many have considered against the Hurricanes. Said Rix, "We thought we could take advantage of Miami's depleted secondary."
The circumstances called for a week of toughening up, above and beyond the push-ups and extra gassers the DBs impose on each other in practice. Stoops targeted Taylor, a junior who led the secondary in tackles (85) and interceptions (four) as an All-Big East pick last year but who the coach thought hadn't played consistently. On Thursday the two sat down for a rap session. "We talked, man to man," said Taylor, "and he told me I was missing tackles that I didn't miss last year. Florida State was where I was going to have to step it up."
The 6'3", 230-pound Taylor stepped up, and even leaped over some Seminoles. The highlight came late in the second quarter, when he picked off an errant Rix lob and snaked through would-be tacklers for a 50-yard score. Taylor had another interception as well as four near misses. When asked what he'd learned from the loss, Florida State coach Bobby Bowden (who's now 11-17 versus Miami) said, "You can't hang the ball up for number 26. I haven't seen a safety that good in a long time."
Before climbing on the team bus, Taylor had a message for future opponents: "We will not accept teams thinking they can pass for a ton of yards on us." Nor will he and his teammates accept anything less than game-breaking plays from one another.