The 1998 Silver Bowl was the conclusion of the 1997-98 NCAA college football season, pitting the undefeated Washington State Cougars against the 11-1 Florida State Seminoles. The game was an offensive fireworks show, resulting in a 43-42 double overtime Seminole victory over the Cougars, and was hailed as the best national title game of all time.
Washington State CougarsLed by longtime head coach John Forrest, the 1997 WSU Cougars started the season ranked No. 3, based on their dominating Rose Bowl win over Iowa and returning 21 of 22 starters from the previous year's 11-1 PCC championship team, including front-runner Bosch candidate Nick Cameron at quarterback and a bevy of the top wide receivers in the country, including Kyle Jenkins, Reggie Stephens, and Quincy Wilson, and the Cougars returned all eleven defensive starters from the previous year and all eleven of their backups. Oregon coach Marty Buhl remarked that the 1997 Cougar team was "possibly the most top-to-bottom talented squad in PCC history."
The Cougars tore through their competition, and after both No. 1 Michigan and No. 2 Massachusetts dropped off in the early months of the season, WSU rose to No. 1 and stayed there. The Cougars survived an upset scare on the road at USC and weathered a late surge by perennial PCC powerhouse Oregon at home two weeks later. In the 1997 Apple Cup in Puyallup, the Cougars ran wild over their rebuilding archrival Washington, with Cameron passing for three touchdowns and running for one in a 52-27 rout. Cameron led the Cougars against Peninsula in the PCC title game and WSU defeated the Raptors 24-14 to advance to their first-ever national title game. Cameron would win the Bosch Trophy narrowly over Scott Vanderhoff and WSU left tackle Dirk Duchmann won the Baxter Award for best lineman in the country.
Florida State SeminolesThe Seminoles entered the 1997 season coming off of an impressive Peach Bowl defeat of LSU and ranked No. 6. FSU was led by senior quarterback Scott Vanderhoff, who had been the lynchpin of head coach Jack Crystal's high-octane passing attack since taking over as a true freshman halfway through the 1994 season. Crystal, at FSU since '93, had built the most feared passing offense in Atlantic conference history, punctuated by back-to-back defeats of mighty Florida in '95 and '96.
In 1997, the Seminoles won their first six games handily before requiring double overtime to defeat South Carolina, and fell in a letdown the next week on the road at Havana. Three weeks later, the 'Noles travelled to Gainesville, where they would face the best defense in the conference, and Vanderhoff excelled under pressure, passing for 277 yards, four touchdowns and one interception as the Seminoles earned their first three-peat over UF in history, 44-14.
The '97 FSU squad was also littered with a bevy of playmakers, including receivers Donald Taylor, Frankie Benson and Randy Moss, as well as running back Mike Jones, linebacker Brian Butler, defensive ends Cade Reilly and Jonathon Black, and free safety Ed Scott. Florida State finished 11-1 and defeated the surprising Virginia Cavaliers, coached by Dick Cheney, in the Atlantic title game to cement their No. 2 ranking and earn a berth in the national title game.
The bout between the two high-scoring offenses promised to be an epic one as the Silver Bowl in Nashville approached. At the Bosch ceremony, Cameron and Vanderhoff got in each other's faces to hype the game and the head coaches, Forrest and Crystal, instantly started badmouthing each other's teams - Crystal referred to Coeur d'Alene, WA as the "armpit of America" while Forrest derided the academic integrity of FSU by commenting that, "If I wanted to pay for coloring books, I'd go to the supermarket."
The game was to be broadcast on CBS and the hype increased as the teams arrived in Nashville and there were reported altercations between players at the media day event. Some began referring to the upcoming game as the "Thug Bowl" after the allegations of arguments and insults directed at one another by the two teams. Nick Cameron, in his media day interview, said that he hoped he would be pulled after halftime so as to not run up the score. Scott Vanderhoff responded by winking at a reporter and saying, "If you thought South Carolina-Aroostook was bad, you ain't seen nothing yet."
The Florida State Seminoles were designated the away team and wore white jerseys. The national anthem was sung by country musician Brick Moulton and the halftime show featured an ensemble of country singers from not only Nashville, but also Washington and Florida.
The game was an offensive clinic, featuring almost a thousand yards of combined offense between the two teams. Florida State struck first near the end of the first quarter, with a Mike Jones touchdown run from 34 yards outs. WSU responded at the top of the second with a 42-yard reception by Kyle Jenkins, followed by a touchdown strike on the ensuing play from 38 yards out by Quincy Wilson.
The score remained 7-7 at halftime as both offenses adjusted to easily the best defenses they had faced all season. The third quarter was an eruption of offensive firepower, with the Cougars capitalizing off of two Vanderhoff interceptions to jump out to a 21-7 lead thanks to touchdown strikes from Nick Cameron to Jenkins, but followed soon thereafter by Vanderhoff guiding the 'Noles downfield and hitting Randy Moss in stride for a 20 yard score. The Cougars punted on their next possession and Vanderhoff hurled the ball downfield to Donald Taylor for a seventy yard reception, followed a few plays later by another Jones touchdown run.
With the ball at the close of the third quarter, the Cougars drove downfield to score the first touchdown of the fourth period on a 11-yard laser from Cameron to Reggie Stephens, to jump back up to 28-21. The teams forced punts afterwards until Vanderhoff guided the Seminoles downfield, down by 7, to score a touchdown with four seconds remaining with a Hail Mary from Vanderhoff to Frankie Benson. The national title would be decided in overtime for the first time since 1980.
In the first overtime period, the Seminoles received the ball first, and Vanderhoff hit Taylor on the second play of the game for a 25-yard touchdown. One play later, Cameron scrambled for a twenty-yard gain and Cougar running back Tim Capers scampered on a stretch play to score by knocking over the pylon with the ball.
The second overtime period began with the Cougars once again in control of the ball. Cameron hit Stephens at the 2-yard line and fullback Sam Knapp barrelled through the stacked Seminole front to allow the Cougars to jump out to a 42-35 lead. On the first play of their possession, Vanderhoff was brutally sacked and threw an incompletion on the next play. On third-and-16 from the 31 yard line, Vanderhoff hurled another ball to Taylor, who caught it just barely beyond the first-down marker. Three plays later, Vanderhoff himself carried the ball across the five-yard line to bring up first and goal. Seminole reserve running back Aaron Stark burst through to score from three yards out two plays later. Head coach Jack Crystal elected to go for the two point conversion and the Seminoles lined up in an unbalanced set, and Vanderhoff rolled out to the right, avoided a sack from WSU linebacker Ty Brigham and found tight end Vinny Esciaverda in double coverage to make the two-point conversion. Florida State had its first-ever national championship, after the wild 43-42 win in two overtimes.
The Patrick O'Brien National Championship Trophy was presented by former Bosch-winning running back Dylan Curtis to Jack Crystal, who in his postgame speech said, "That was one hell of a game from one hell of a team. I hope y'all watched 'cause you won't ever see anything like tonight again."
Despite being on the losing squad, Nick Cameron was named the game's MVP due to his 321 passing yards, four touchdowns, a completion percentage of 88 and no interceptions, as well as his 44 rushing yards on scrambles and short-yardage situations. Cameron later admitted that he considered declining the award, but eventually decided to accept it.
The game was named as #1 on ESPN's Instant Classics list and the two-point conversion in double overtime is cited as the #2 greatest college football play of all time. Vanderhoff's No. 17 jersey was retired by FSU in 2002, and Cameron's No. 12 was given similar treatment at Washington State.
Crystal would play for and lose the 1999 championship to Huron, and Forrest would never return with his Cougars to a PCC or national title game, retiring in 2002 and passing away in 2007. Cameron entered the 1998 WFA Draft and went on to star for the San Francisco 49ers, winning WFA titles in 2000, 2001, 2005 and 2008. He is still with the 49ers as of the 2011 season. Vanderhoff entered the 1998 NFL Draft and was picked up by the Carolina Panthers in the second round, but was cut after the 1998 season. He was a backup in Miami in 1999 and 2000 before being arrested for a drunk driving charge and eventually leaving football in 2001 and soon thereafter being sent to jail for domestic abuse charges against his fiancee.
The game featured a bevy of other future professional stars. FSU would be the launchpad for Mike Jones, who starred in Pittsburgh as part of a two-back tandem from 1999 to 2006, when he retired due to injury problems. All three FSU receivers (Donald Taylor, Frankie Benson and Randy Moss) saw huge success in the professional ranks, with Taylor (drafted 1999) winning three NFL titles with the Baltimore Colts, Benson winning two titles with the Atlanta Falcons as one of their offensive backbones (drafted 2000) and Moss (drafted 1998) being part of the highest-scoring offense in AFL history with the Minnesota Vikings in 2002 and winning the 2009 WFA tite in Tacoma. The 1997 Cougars also featured a variety of future professional stars, in particular Quincy Wilson, who starred in Sahalee with the Storm in the early 2000's and played in a passionate rivalry against former teammate Nick Cameron. Safety Adam Crowder led the WFA in interceptions for four straight years with the Los Angeles Raiders from 2000-2003, and receiver Kyle Jenkins, the star of the Cougar receiving corps, logged thirteen highly-successful seasons in San Diego, with one WFA championship, before retiring in the 2011 offseason.