Date: January 4th, 2000
Location: Nokia Sugar Bowl, Superdome, New Orleans, Louisiana
Opponent: No. 2 Virginia Tech Hokies
Apologies in advance if you came looking for play #23 and leave feeling like you read a double love letter, but that’s how things work when you’re this high up in the Top 100 countdown. Let’s visit the iconic 2000 Nokia Sugar Bowl, where Florida State captured its second national title, this time in wire-to-wire fashion. We’ve frequently revisited the Mike Tyson metaphor in many early Dynasty Years games(1987-2000) where FSU landed a devastating hay maker at the opening bell. But to win the BCS championship over the Mike Vick-lead Virginia Tech Hokies, Bobby Bowden’s Noles had to survive a Thrilla in Manila-style slugfest for the ages.
Much like the Monk Bonasorte-Keith Jones Tip Drill Play #59, the blocked punt for a touchdown against Virginia Tech was a brilliant buddy parlay featuring a pair of archetypal Seminole Legends by the likes of linebacker Tommy Polley and running back Jeff Chaney. This play holds a special place by featuring both an offensive and defensive player converging for a special teams gem...in one of the most important games in school history. Let’s meet our heroes, shall we?
Hero #1: The Punt Blocker
Tommy Polley arrived at Florida State in 1996 as a transcendent 2-sport athlete from Dunbar High School in Baltimore. His teams won a combined 6 state titles during his tenure, 4 in basketball and 2 in football. What made him want to attend Florida State 900 miles away? Polley’s affinity for Derrick Brooks, with his decision sealed while attending FSU’s first ACC loss at Virginia as Warrick Dunn came up 1-yard short(or negative 0.2 yards short, depending on who you ask).
Polley had a non-traditional linebacker build at a listed height of 6’5” and 230 pounds, using small forward athleticism to cover wide swaths of real estate, and his lengthy reach to swallow up ball carriers. #29 was FSU’s leading tackler in 1999, but a punt block stamped his legacy in Tallahassee.
Hero #2: The Scoop-n-Score Phenom
Long-time Nole fans have soft spots for certain players, but few names hit softer spots than #24 Jeff Chaney. Chaney came to FSU as a 2-way stud from Lake Wales, Florida. As a senior, he racked up 27 rushing touchdowns while making 135 tackles on defense. While never landing a full-time starting role at Florida State, Chaney made his 234 career carries and 24 catches count. He was a renowned Croc Killer and a 3rd down assassin. While playing behind the more heralded Travis Minor his entire career, Chaney’s running style and nose for timely plays dazzled Seminole fans. His balance and cutting ability reminded some of Amp Lee, combined with uncanny ability to lower his pads and find the 1st down sticks when his team needed it. Thankfully, those untaught instincts translated to special teams as well.
In a heavyweight bout, landing as many huge blows as possible is crucial to winning. Frank Beamer’s Hokies made their bread in the 1990’s by blocking kicks, and the phrase “Beamer Ball” was coined to encapsulate this strategy of scoring points however possible at any time. A wise strategy indeed, as studies have shown that blocking a punt leads to victory up to 90% of the time. But the master of 1980’s kick blocking, Bobby Bowden, flipped the script in New Orleans. Fresh off a 64-yard opening scoring TD strike to Peter Warrick(ever heard of this guy?), the Noles forced a quick 3-and-out deep in Virginia Tech territory. On 4th and 24, our 2 heroes step up to the plate.
The lesser known Seminole chief Wild Cat(aka Coacoochee), once starved himself inside a Saint Augustine prison for a week to narrow his size, then slipped through the metal bars to freedom. Nobody is claiming that Hero #1 Tommy Polley studied strategies of the Second Seminole Wars to prepare his mind and body for the Sugar Bowl, but the way he slipped through the middle of Virginia Tech’s line of scrimmage is similar enough for the author to not rule out that possibility 100%. The towering linebacker then used his wingspan to easily block the punt around Tech’s goal line.
The ball ricocheted dead left towards the front end zone pylon, the began bouncing back beyond the 5-yard line. Recovering and advancing bouncing footballs is a chaotic art form. How many times do you see the operation bungled, thinking either “Why didn’t he just fall on it?!” or “Why did he jump on it instead of running with it?!” Luck often plays a huge element in the success rate of bouncing football plays, unless you have the instincts of Hero #2 Jeff Chaney. Chaney approached the free ball while running straight down the 5-yard line. The end zone to his left, and the ball moving away to his right. What he does next is nothing you train or practice, it’s something straight from the playbooks of Indiana Jones or Ethan Hunt. Secure the diamond/explosive/football at full speed, then maneuver your body miraculously to higher ground/solid ground/touchdown.
The spectacular touchdown put Florida State ahead 14-0 with 2:14 left in the 1st quarter, and it may have been the early body blow that paid dividends later in round 14. On this day, Michael Vick put on an unforgettable performance from the quarterback position with a terrifying combination of eye-popping elusiveness and rocket arm passing. In fact, Tech scored on a 49-yard TD strike 90 seconds after the punt block. And it was like that all night, as the teams traded big play after big play, as the Hokies often followed an FSU score with their own huge play on kickoff returns. Tech outgained Florida State 503 yards to 359, but the massive special teams touchdowns were too much for Beamer to overcome. Oh, that and another upcoming play in the Countdown.
As stated in the broadcast, Tommy Polley actually declared his return to FSU for a senior season BEFORE the game, something unheard of in 2018. Unfortunately, he tore knee ligaments in the 2nd half of this same Sugar Bowl while trying to pursue the seemingly unstoppable Vick. He recovered in time for the 2000 season and made 100 tackles en route to another BCS title game, and was a Brian Piccolo Award finalist for his courageous return from injury. Polley became a 2nd round draft pick and enjoyed a productive 6-year NFL career.
Jeff Chaney also tore his ACL, but during the 2000 Wake Forest game on the terrible Groves Stadium playing surface. Since this a two person top play, we’ll end this love letter with a bonus play epitomizing the essence of Jeff Chaney: Big stage, big moment, broken tackles.