When Florida State played host to No. 4 Pittsburgh in 1980, it was on the back end of a grueling three-game stretch that began with games at Miami and No. 3 Nebraska.
FSU fell at Miami on what players consider a phantom flag, a pass interference on an uncatchable throw near the goal line. A week later, FSU went to Nebraska and pulled out an 18-14 win but also one that ended with a standing ovation from the home crowd in recognition of what the Seminoles had shown on the field that day.
And then the stage was set. A night game against a top-5 opponent with national championship aspirations and was loaded with future first-round draft picks. A night game at Doak Campbell Stadium.
A top-5 team visiting Tallahassee was a rarity at that time and it hadn’t happened in more than 10 years, not since FSU smashed No. 5 Kentucky 48-6 in 1964, knocked off No. 5 Georgia 10-3 in 1965 and then No. 5 Florida won 9-3 in 1968. FSU’s fans were ready for a Saturday night showdown and a then-record crowd of 52,894 were amped up.
After the kickoff, Rick Stockstill dropped back to pass and took a brutal sack from Hugh Green. A quick three-and-out, a punt and soon a young Dan Marino tossed a perfect 39-yard pass to Willie Collier, giving Pitt the early edge.
An inauspicious start, to say the least. But the game was as close to “complete” as Florida State’s players and coaches could have hoped. Players recalled a debate over whether the Seminoles should emphasize the run or pass vs. Pitt’s vaunted defensive front. Running backs Sam Platt and Michael Whiting indeed ground out 177 yards, while Stockstill also tossed three touchdown passes. Bobby Butler, Keith Jones and Monk Bonasorte each had interceptions and FSU forced four fumbles (yes, the Seminoles had seven takeaways). Bill Capece connected on five field-goal attempts and Rohn Stark punted seven times for a 48.1-yard average.
“It was a perfect game against a hell of an opponent,” said Kurt Unglaub, who caught a touchdown pass.
“It was three phases of the game in concert with each other,” said tailback Michael Whiting, who ran for 52 yards.
Conditioning and humidity were also factors. It may have been Oct. 11, but it felt more like summer than early fall. And that took a toll on the Panthers, especially in the second half.
“You know how the fourth quarter rolls around, we hold up those four fingers?” Whiting recalls. “And we would see those guys back in the huddle, the (Pitt) offensive linemen, bending over and throwing up. And we said, ‘Ok, it’s time to go to work.’ And, of course, we’re still running around like waterbugs.”
This week the Osceola caught up with seven players to reflect on the Seminoles’ 36-22 win, one that coach Bobby Bowden considered the biggest one of his career at that time and among the victories that built the program.
Where to begin? It could be on offense, defense or special teams. But when it comes to pulling off an upset, let’s start with the takeaways and FSU’s defense.
Safety Keith Jones and cornerback Bobby Butler had the receiver covered. Or so they thought. Marino’s pass to Collier was perfect.
“Marino was that good,” Jones said. “Bobby and I had him blanketed. There’s no way he catches that ball. We were right there in coverage and we couldn’t stop it.”
Said Butler: “He threw some crazy passes.”
The throw and catch were quite the wake-up call. The defensive backs went to the sideline and heard about it from defensive coordinator Jack Stanton, who was up in the box. Four-letter words were flying over the headset from Stanton. “It excited coach Stanton enough that it excited us,” Jones said.
Pitt was a top-5 team, but FSU played like the No. 1 team in the nation at forcing turnovers. The interceptions (three) and fumbles (four) piled up for the Seminoles. Marino was able to get his yards (300) as well as a pair of touchdown passes, but Pitt just couldn’t get much going. Beyond the seven takeaways, FSU forced Pitt to punt six times.
In the fourth quarter, with the game on the line and FSU clinging to a 29-22 lead, the Panthers fumbled a handoff (which led to Stockstill’s TD pass to Unglaub). Bonasorte and Butler later had interceptions to keep the Panthers from mounting a rally.
“Anytime you turn the ball over you have the advantage,” Butler said. “To have the three of us make those plays (interceptions) was a big thing for me looking back on it. We started three years together. That was our senior year. It was a big night for us.”
FSU was playing an offense that was loaded with future NFL talent. Beyond Marino, there were first-round picks like offensive linemen Mark May and Jimbo Covert and running back Randy McMillan on offense. There was also a third-round pick in offensive lineman Russ Grimm and late-round pick Julius Dawkins, a receiver.
Green, Marino, Covert and May are in the College Football Hall of Fame. Marino, Grimm, Covert and linebacker Rickey Jackson all were inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
But players like Bonasorte, a Pittsburgh native who was unwanted by his hometown school, epitomized the FSU win. Bonasorte arrived at FSU as a walk-on and had 15 interceptions, the most in school history at the time (only Terrell Buckley’s 21 are more).
“We were undersized, we didn’t have blue-chip players all over the field,” defensive tackle Ron Simmons said. “But what they did not know was that we played together and how much we loved each other. We didn’t have dissension. We didn’t have color barriers. We loved each other genuinely. And it showed on the football field.”
Run first, pass second
The plan was to run. But FSU coaches also knew that Pittsburgh was stacked in the front seven, featuring linebackers like Hugh Green, Rickey Jackson and Sal Sunseri (yes, the future FSU defensive ends coach).
So FSU tried to run and found success. Sam Platt had 26 carries for 123 yards and Michael Whiting added 15 carries for 52 yards, as the duo averaged 4.27 yards per carry.
“The running game played an instrumental part as far as establishing the pass game, opening up the pass game,” Whiting said. “Run first, pass second. I don’t think they anticipated or felt like we were capable of running on them because it was such a dominant force on the defensive side of the ball. But we proved otherwise.”
FSU only had 290 offensive yards on the night, a reflection in part on the turnovers setting up shorter fields. Still, the Seminoles were able to sustain drives and produce points.
“The fact that we were able to gash them with the run at instrumental times, we would execute and get a first down,” Whiting said. “That created an urgency to try and stop our run.”
Pitt couldn’t. And Stockstill made the most of his passes, completing 10 of 20 for 127 yards. He connected with Hardis Johnson for a 23-yard touchdown and Sam Childers for a 4-yard touchdown in the second quarter before later putting the game away with the TD pass to Unglaub.
At the line, Stockstill had two calls ready — one a run, one a pass — called in from offensive coordinator George Henshaw. The game plan and execution was too much for Pitt.
“George Henshaw put together just a masterful game plan and what we did in the run game,” Stockstill said. “I was going to run the play that was called or change it to the opposite play, based on what they were doing defensively. Coach Henshaw deserves a ton of credit. We did a lot of good things in the run game.”
FSU had an edge in the kicking game, too. Capece connected on a school record five field-goal attempts, from 24, 43, 50, 30 and 44 yards (it was later matched a few times before Ricky Aguayo made six in the 2016 opener vs. Ole Miss).
Capece made 22 of 30 field-goal attempts that season and was a first-team All-American. After going 4 for 4 at Nebraska, he was ready for Pitt and nailed his first five. (He also missed on a 46-yard attempt midway through the fourth quarter, but by that point the win was in hand.)
“I was very fired up for the Pitt game and when given the opportunity to make some field goals I did just that,” Capece said. “It was really demoralizing to Pitt that when our offense got across the 50-yard line we were coming away with points. Either three or seven. That put pressure on Pitt for sure.”
From Capece to his teammates and coaches, there was confidence in the kicker being able to make any kick from any range. Jones argued one of the field goals would have been good from 70 yards.
“He had so much confidence that he could hit from anywhere,” said Unglaub, the holder on Capece’s field-goal and extra-point attempts that day. “And Bowden believe that. When we stalled on our drive, we felt like we could get three points. That was a hell of a game.”
Rohn Stark had quite the game, too. FSU’s punter had a 48.1-yard average, which included punts of 67, 60 and 53. Flipping the field, Stark was able to help out the defense.
“Stark kept us out of trouble,” Butler said. “We probably had the best two kickers in all of college football. Just a phenomenal night in the kicking game and our special teams.”
Said Capece: “Rohn Stark was and is the greatest punter I have ever seen.”
One of FSU’s biggest wins
Wins over a top-5 team are rare. What about doing so on back-to-back weeks? Yes, the scheduling plays a huge factor there. But that’s what FSU did, first at Nebraska and then against Pittsburgh.
“I don’t know if there’s a better two-week period in the history of the Florida State football, especially up to that time,” Stockstill said.
It wasn’t until nearly two decades later, the 1999 season, when FSU knocked off No. 3 Florida and then No. 2 Virginia Tech to take top-5 victories in consecutive games. And it hasn’t happened since then.
Forty years later, the win over Pitt is prominent in the memory of the players and many of the fans who were there that night. But it wasn’t a win over a rival like Florida or Miami, and thus it hasn’t been remembered in the same way.
“It doesn’t get the attention because Pittsburgh hasn’t been relevant in the last 30 or 35 years,” Jones said. “People forget they won the national championship in 1976, they were four years removed from a national championship.”
Whiting agrees and said it’s generational. Younger FSU fans may not have been alive or were too young to remember.
“They didn’t have an opportunity to experience that win,” Whiting said. “I guarantee you those individuals that were in that stadium that night, they would rate that as one of the highest if not one of the biggest wins in Florida State history in Doak Campbell.”
But it was also a win that continued to establish FSU as a national brand. Beyond Bowden’s arrival in 1976, the success came quickly with a monumental win at Florida in ‘77 as well as road games that earned Bowden the reputation as the “Road Warrior.” And a year after the 1980 campaign, the Seminoles would go on the road and play Nebraska, Ohio State, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh and LSU in the grueling Octoberfest schedule.
But in 1980 FSU was just a few years removed from the struggles in the mid-1970s, including the winless, injury-depleted 1973 season. At the time, the losses were so near in the memory. And FSU’s reputation was still being built.
Wins like FSU’s over Pitt showed the Seminoles were a “legitimate program and not a flash-in-the-pan program,” Stockstill said.
“During the era I came in, just two years prior, I’m sure Florida State was on the list to be everybody’s homecoming,” Simmons said. “It was expected to be an easy win. Those were not just games I would look at to make my career or our career. But we approached every game as if it was going to be the last one we were going to ever play. We set out to make a name for our school.”
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