There won’t be a better feel-good story the rest of the 2021 college football season.
No. 9 Notre Dame beat Florida State 41-38 in an overtime thriller on Sunday in a game that won’t be remembered for the score. It will be remembered for the return of McKenzie Milton, who nearly led the Seminoles to a comeback victory on a night where FSU honored the late, legendary coach Bobby Bowden at Doak Campbell Stadium.
Milton saw his first action since suffering a gruesome leg injury on Nov. 23, 2018. He required reconstructive knee surgery and a second surgery after an infection and then transferred from UCF.
The long-awaited return nearly unfolded in movie-like fashion.
Notre Dame took a 38-20 lead with 4:32 left in the third quarter on a night that had belonged to Irish quarterback Jack Coan, a Wisconsin transfer who finished with 366 passing yards and four touchdowns. This game looked like a run-of-the-mill blowout, but it turned into arguably the best game in the ND-FSU series since the No. 1 vs. No. 2 “Game of the Century” in 1993.
That’s not hyperbole.
The script nearly flipped when Milton entered the game to a standing ovation with 9:02 left in the fourth quarter. He lobbed a perfect pass to Ja’Khi Douglas for a 22-yard gain on his first pass. That sparked a TD drive to cut the margin to 38-35.
Milton kept the next drive alive with a shovel pass on third-and-2 to Darion Williamson, and Ryan Fitzgerald forced overtime with a 43-yard field goal. Bowden would have loved that.
This was going to be the Florida State version of “Rudy,” right?
Not all real-life scripts are perfect, however. Milton’s only throw in overtime was a desperation heave after a low snap on third down. Fitzgerald then missed a 37-yard field goal attempt. Notre Dame avoided disaster when Jonathan Doerer nailed a 41-yard field goal for the victory. Bowden would have felt that, too.
The Irish won, even if the second half raised questions about the defense and the running game, which averaged just 1.9 yards per attempt. There were questions about Coan coming into the season, and he was the brightest spot for Notre Dame in the opener. Another College Football Playoff berth remains possible under Brian Kelly.
That won’t be the lasting memory from Sunday night. It will be Milton dodging tacklers, creating plays and nearly leading Florida State to an upset on a weekend when the ACC’s three top-15 teams lost. It will be the image of Milton’s mother, Teresa, crying next to her husband, Mark, while their son continued his college football career.
“McKenzie’s a great competitor,” Seminoles second-year coach Mike Norvell said. “As he went into this week, he just continued to [say], ‘Coach, I’ll be ready. I’ll be ready.’ You never know when that opportunity’s going to present itself. (Starting QB) Jordan (Travis) had a couple things happen there late and McKenzie came in and he was ready. Prepared well. Such a wonderful competitor.
“It was great to see him get the opportunity to go out there and compete. Anybody that knows his story and all that’s gone into it, he’s somebody that you cheer for. Special young man. To see him rise up in that moment, I was really proud of him.”
Milton completed 5 of 7 passes for 48 yards and should push for more playing time the rest of the season. His return is the lift Norvell needed for this program, and it has to leave the Seminoles in a better spot for the rest of the 2021 season.
The best part is that this isn’t over for Milton.
Other heartwarming stories will surface in 2021, but not one that feels this good.