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FSU 45, Florida 38: Seminoles escape the Gators’ grasp — with one of their own

Florida and Florida State added another classic to their rivalry — and the officials made sure the ending will be discussed for years to come.

NCAA Football: Florida at Florida State Melina Myers-USA TODAY Sports

The indelible image should’ve been Jordan Travis escaping Florida defenders — any one of the several times he did it, or Trey Benson scoring the game-winning touchdown, or Ricky Pearsall mugging for the cameras after one of his scores, or Trevor Etienne dashing to paydirt, or Anthony Richardson making a play that would have sealed his place in Gators legend.

Instead, inevitably, the indelible image from Florida State 45, Florida 38 — a game so good and a win so deeply savored that fans spilled from the stands to celebrate it, despite the mere six wins to these Gators’ name and the lack of any number next to their logo — is going to be the last blown call on a night marred by uneven officiating.

That image, blurry and clear all the same, is FSU defensive back Jammie Robinson, moonlighting as an edge rusher on Florida’s final offensive snap and tugging Richardson’s facemask for what is usually called a 15-yard personal foul.

Except, on this play, it wasn’t — and though Richardson still escaped Robinson’s well-timed, unblocked rush, he ultimately heaved the ball to nowhere on Florida’s last gasp for a second straight week.

Perhaps it’s wrong to think that this game, in which Florida and FSU traded touchdowns all night and scored the most points in the history of a rivalry with more than half a century of annual contests, will be remembered for that. The football was good more often than it was bad.

Travis was sensational, accounting for 353 yards of total offense and three touchdowns, and Benson had 111 rushing yards and three touchdowns to match his quarterback, with both Seminoles breaking big runs — and Travis, in particular, doing so in magical fashion, time and again evading Gators who could not get him to the ground.

Richardson was brilliant early, throwing for 198 yards and three touchdowns, and bulled his way to a few key runs late, even though he completed a miserable four of his final 20 throws and finished at nine completions on 27 attempts. And Florida’s running backs picked him up, with Etienne (129 rushing yards, one touchdown) and Montrell Johnson Jr. (85 rushing yards, one score) doing their usual Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis karaoke, as did Ricky Pearsall, whose 148 receiving yards and two touchdowns came almost entirely in the first half.

And after a spirited first half that ended with Florida up 24-21, both teams had runs left to make: FSU’s was a 17-0 burst in the third quarter marked by explosive plays, while Florida’s two-touchdown response in the fourth quarter to tie the game included one drive sustained over and over by FSU penalties and one with Etienne streaking 45 yards for six points.

After Benson’s go-ahead touchdown — on a drive with yet more whirling dervishly by Travis, and more of the missed holding calls that were legion for both sides all night — Florida and FSU had set the stage set for an epic conclusion to a thrilling game.

The two biggest plays of the final drive featured penalties — one, a defensive pass interference on Jarques McClellion on a fourth down that incensed color commentator Brock Osweiler to the point that he couldn’t concede that McClellion had wrapped his arms around Caleb Douglas before the ball arrived, something made clear by replays, and the second, uncalled, on Robinson.

Those two moments in which what referees did or did not call were, to be holistic, not the only moments in which the choices of humans who were not the athletes on the field shaped a game that those athletes deserved to win or lose — whether or not, to be clear, the Gators or Seminoles came out on top — without the specter of blown calls or one-sided officiating being the sour taste in the mouths of most who witnessed it. And, to be fair, there has rarely been a football game without a blown call, or one in which human error by referees was greater than the human error of the athletes and coaches involved.

But to be fair, clear, and holistic, the dearth of holding penalties on this night played as significant a role in shaping this game as that last call and there has rarely been a singular blown call as clear as what was missed on Richardson and there are few rivalries in which there have been multiple games as wholly impacted by officiating as Florida-FSU, with Florida fans remembering the 1996 game in which FSU defenders punished Danny Wuerffel with late hits “to the echo of the whistle,” as instructed by defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews, the 2003 game infamously known as “The Swindle in The Swamp” in which so many calls from a crew of referees from the ACC went against Florida prior to the rise of instant replay that it prompted new rules about what officials would call which games.

And outside of the rivalry, Gator Nation has watched Richardson — inconsistent too often, incandescent too rarely — closely this year, and seen more than a few instances of him not getting this or that call, some seemingly for the same reasons so many athletes who are physically gifted even relative to talented peers cannot be assessed correctly and some seemingly for no real reason at all.

In that way, Florida losing this game because Richardson being blatantly fouled was not seen in real time by refs who managed to throw 16 other penalty flags is a perfect final flourish for these Gators and this season.

In another, it’s the sort of artifact of human imperfection that makes being a fan — which unavoidably means emotionally investing in the outcomes of humans competing against each other on fields of play and the idea that there is mythic fairness inherent in sports that always rewards the deserving side, at least to some degree — as maddening at the worst of times as it can be magnificent at the best.