55th Annual Sugar Bowl Classic ~ January 1, 1989
#4 Florida State 13 (Final: 11-1-0, #3)
#7 Auburn 7 (Final: 10-2-0, #8)
How Florida State and Auburn Met in the 1989 Sugar Bowl
Auburn didn’t impress Florida State. Not in the least.
This was expected to be a showcase game for Auburn’s stifling defense – a much ballyhooed unit that came into the game surrendering 63.2 yards. No single back had cracked it for a hundred yards since 1986.
But on Florida State’s first series, the Seminoles took straight aim at the Tigers, driving 84 yards for a touchdown, a two-yard run by fullback Dayne Williams. All but 23 yards of the drive were by rushing – just a hair under Auburn’s per game yield – and tailback Sammie Smith alone gained 34 of that yardage.
That is called making a statement.
Tiger tackle Tracy Rocker, winner of the 1988 Outland Trophy as the nation’s top defensive lineman, said part of FSU’s early success came from showing Auburn an offensive look it hadn’t encountered all year.
“Teams usually come straight off the ball to block us,” Rocker said. “This time they waited one count to see which way we were going. Then they would just go where we were and block us. Their backs would cut back.”
After FSU’s early touchdown, Auburn ran three plays and punted, and the Seminoles came right back with a 13-play drive that resulted in a 35-yard field goal by Bob Mason. Then Mason kicked another, giving the Seminoles a 13-0 lead.
Was the rout on?
Auburn finally got its offense untracked and climbed back into the game when Reggie Slack hit Walter Reeves with a 20-yard touchdown pass after Deion Sanders bit on a fake pitch and left his zone uncovered.
“Auburn tricked us on that TD,” Sanders said. “They lulled us to sleep during the drive, and that touchdown was my fault.”
Then Bowden called a questionable play. Leading 13-7 early in the fourth period, the FSU coach sent in a pass play on third-and-goal from the 1. It was mishandled and wound up as a lateral pass/fumble that was recovered by the Tigers at the 18.
“We really needed to score there, at least a field goal,” Bowden said. “…Three points there could have put the game away, because I don’t think they could have scored twice on us. If I could do it again, I’d run.”
Auburn coach Pat Dye wasn’t dead yet, nor was he thinking of his controversial decision to go for a tie in the 1988 Sugar Bowl against Syracuse. Or so he said.
With 8:05 remaining, on fourth-and-nine from the FSU 15, Auburn went for it all. The Seminoles chased Slack out of the pocket and Slack was called for grounding the football.
“I didn’t think there was enough (time) left for us to get down there again,” Dye said. “If we had kicked the field goal then, we would have still needed a touchdown to win. I wasn’t worried about what happened last year. We needed a touchdown to win and that’s why we went to it.”
Auburn did get the ball back and Slack mounted an impressive last-minute drive in a gallant attempt to beat the clock, and the Seminoles, converting three-fourth-down situations to reach the FSU 22 with 12 seconds left.
He then lofted an end zone shot to Lawyer Tillman. Sanders, though, timed his pursuit of the ball perfectly. Seemingly out of nowhere, Sanders stepped in front of Tillman and snatched the potential winning touchdown away from the receiver.
A split second later Sanders dropped to his knees in the end zone, securing the victory for the third-ranked Seminoles – and fulfilling his dream.
“When Deion Sanders doesn’t make a big play,” he said of himself in the third person afterward, “he has a bad game. It was a storybook ending, but I’m still not satisfied with my game. The ending made it OK, but I’m still not satisfied.”
Florida State had every reason but one to be satisfied. The Seminoles gained 305 yards, most of any Auburn opponent in 1988, and Smith gained 115 of that total. Further, the Tigers managed only 270 total yards, 135 fewer than their season average.
“The only thing I didn’t like was my play-calling on the goal line,” Bowden said. “I let Auburn’s defensive line intimidate me. I looked at 11 games on film, and nobody stuffed the ball on Auburn at the goal line. We could have scored a whole bunch of points.”
A whole bunch of points would have been nice, but, as it was, 13 were enough. Just barely enough.
Recap excerpted from the book “Sugar Bowl Classic: A History” by Marty Mulé, who covered the game and the organization for decades for the New Orleans Times-Picayune.