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Finishers Cap Comeback for FSU in Florida DIAA Final

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Finishers Cap Comeback for FSU in Florida DIAA Final

Florida State tired but victorious. Photo courtesy Austin Morris.

Florida State capped off their second-straight stirring comeback to win the Florida DIAA collegiate championships Saturday.

Down 19-6 in the first half, and 29-16 in the second half, the Seminoles nevertheless came back. Their bench was enormously influential in the closing minutes, helping FSU overhaul a very good Bulls team 31-29.

Both sides had scoring opportunities early, but the goalline defenses held. Florida State had a kickable penalty 10 minutes in and opted for the lineout. But USF stole that ball, and later got a penalty to get out of trouble. Lesson learned for the Seminoles and when they secured a not-releasing penalty about 26 meters out and in front of the posts, they had no hesitation in pointing to the sticks.

South Florida Takes Control

Center Luca Marfella put the kick through and Florida State was up 3-0.

The lead lasted until about midway through the first half. USF got their own not-releasing penalty in front of the posts, and opted for the lineout. Possession was messy and the timing in the backs was poor, but the pressure remained and eventually, after getting the ball back, the Bulls scored—all-conference center Michael Burrell strolled through a massive gap and cut back to score under the posts. The center converted his own try and South Florida led 7-3.

They would remain in the lead for the next 60 minutes.

Another penalty fairly close to the posts gave FSU another shot, and Marfella was good on the kick to make it 7-6. But back came South Florida. An attack out wide saw the ball go into touch, but FSU made an error after winning their lineout, as the first receive took his eye off the ball as it was passed to him. Knock-on in-goal, scrum-five for South Florida.

The Bulls bashed at the line from there and finally some fairly smooth passing down the backline put wing Kaden Hankins over. 12-6 USF.

A thundering crash from lock Derrick Lei-Sam extended the South Florida lead, and Burrell converted to make it 19-6.

Remember Last Time

A week before, Florida State had been ahead as the first half was about to end. With the score 13-12 they looked to close out the half against FIU and Head Coach Michael Gomez had urged his side to make no mistakes and just get into the break. Of course, the best laid plans of coaches can just fall away and FSU made a mistake, FIU pounced, and scored to make it a 19-13 scoreline at halftime.

FSU came back to win, but they all remembered what had happened.

This time around, the tables were turned. USF had just scored and there was just less than a minute left in the half. Gomez told his players, they know it can happen; they know a try can be scored in such a short time.

South Florida secured the restart, but had to go through a couple of phases before the half could end; so of course there was a miscue, the ball rolled free and wing Lian Egosi eluded several tacklers to take the ball deep into South Florida's 22. The forwards went to work from there and prop Ethan Frisch picked up and powered over. Marfella converted and it was 19-13.

It was the same halftime score as last week for Florida State, but with the Seminoles having secured the last points, their mood was very different.

FSU looked to push that advantage and wisely took the points on offer. Another Marfella penalty made it 19-16 and the Seminoles were right back in it.

Same Formula for USF

Probably frustrated that they had lost some momentum, USF redoubled their efforts, using, as they had in the first half, flanker Kaleb Lowe to hit the gain line and suck in defenders. Once again they went wide when close to the tryline and once again a good pass gave Hankins a chance and he was over for his second. 

South Florida held onto that 24-16 lead well into the final quarter of the match. But they had some bad news as Burrell, who has starred for them all season, picked up an ankle injury. Not wanting to leave the field, Burrell gutted it out as long as he could, but finally reality set in with about 15 minutes left.

Still USF was able to extend their lead. They kept up the pressure and after a tap penalty move Pau Marcilla Lacarra crashed over. With Burrell not available to kick the tough-angle conversion didn't go over. There was no guarantee it would in any event, but coming in cold to kick that goal is a tough ask. USF 29 Florida State 16.

The Closers

Twelve minutes remained, and this is where things got really interesting. The subs had come on for Florida State and they had come on as part of a game plan.

Marfella slipped through a gap moments later to score and convert to make it 29-23. USF battled hard to defend their line and got out of trouble a few times. But the rugby gods giveth and the rugby gods taketh away. Lineout trouble had helped give South Florida some scoring chances in the first half. This time, with their throw-in, the ball slip over the fingertips and into FSU hands. Two wildly loopy skip passes later and the elusive Egosi had a one-on-one. It was enough. He put a move on his opposite, and took off down the sideline.


Now it was 29-28 with six minutes to go. Marfella's effort on the wide-angled kick was no good.

After the restart Florida State got a massive boot to the ball and the chase was on. The ball bounced off two USF players before it was regathered. A superb chase and tackle from reserve SH Dany Bennett was followed by a counterruck and a poach attempt that forced a penalty. They tapped quickly and South Florida didn't go back 10. Play continued on advantage but when FSU didn't score, the play came back to the original penalty. From 24 meters out and on a bit of an angle, Marfella was asked to win the game. He missed.  

Things went from bad to worse for Marfella, who had been superb all day. He fell awkwardly and dislocated his elbow and had to leave the game. Once again FSU's depth would be tested.

South Florida held the ball but right on their 22. They had two minutes to work off. But fatigue was setting in. They were a bit slow to one breakdown and reserve prop Connor Simon pounced in to poach the ball. Penalty to FSU.

With one minute left then Cole Ryan, with the #23 on his back and on the field for just a minute or so, was asked to win the game. The kick was true, the referee blew the whistle to end the game and Florida State had their victory, 32-29. Pandemonium.

Depth Wins a Championship

"The real difference was the substitutions," said Gomez. "We had 35 guys play first 15 this season and all 35 of them played when the game was on the line, meaningful minutes. You could see that was a huge difference. Don’t get me wrong I was looking at the faces of the starters coming off down 13, and they were looking real glum. They were thinking 'here goes this whole season of hard work.' But we knew, with the guys we had coming on, down 13 with 12 minutes left this is anybody's game."

The players who made key plays on the ball in the final minutes—the kick and chase to turn the field, the plays to force penalties, the tackles—were all made by substitutes.

Florida State and South Florida will both go to Houston to play the top two from the California Conference, Sacramento State and Fresno State. That two-game showcase will provide more thrills.

But for now, while South Florida can reflect on a really good season, Florida State can bask in some last-second glory. Marfella was brilliant again and scored 30 points over the semifinal and final matches. Bennett, Simon, and others on the bench provided a key spark late in the game, while captain Bear Bollinger, center Sam Williams, and flanker Yousef Abu were excellent. Egosi provided some special moves, and of course one can't ignore how much pressure Cole Ryan was under as he lined up that kick.