October 18, 2004 TALLAHASSEE Refreshingly candid by nature, Florida State coach Bobby Bowden never has been one to watch his words. Until now.
Quarterback controversies even when they aren't have a way of doing that.
FSU's beat reporters can almost hear Bowden tip-toeing the fine line between brutal honesty and careful word selection whenever the topic turns to quarterbacks Wyatt Sexton and Chris Rix. And anyone can sense that Bowden has a real empathy for the much-maligned Rix, the quarterback he hitched his wagon to in 2001, a wagon that often has taken the Seminoles off-course through Rix's three seasons as the starter.
Sexton's surprise emergence since Rix suffered a high right ankle sprain in the first quarter against Clemson (Sept. 25) has been a blessing on the field. While leading the Seminoles to four consecutive wins, including their 36-3 dismantling of not-yet-ready but sixth-ranked Virginia, Sexton undoubtedly caused Bowden and the coaching staff to ponder the way they evaluate quarterbacks.
"Right now, what I see is a stabilizing factor, a stabilizer in there that is not making critical errors to prevent us from winning ballgames," Bowden said, after Sexton was just short of perfect against the Cavaliers.
Stabilizing is an interesting word, especially considering that the error-prone Rix always has had a way of galvanizing his teammates against him.
Just as Sexton dissected the Cavaliers' zone defense he was 20-of-26 for 275 yards and a touchdown, despite being hurt by five dropped passes the sophomore also shredded the notion that he was one mistake away from being replaced by Rix.
"He was just doing what you hoped he'd do," Bowden said. "Boy, he's got some instinct."
Sexton has enough instinct that Bowden let Rix know exactly what his role would be with the team heading into the Virginia game. That was something he intentionally avoided sharing with the media at the time.
"You're a relief pitcher," Bowden told Rix. "If our starter can't get 'em out, you be ready to go. This is a team thing. Right now our team is clicking the way it is."
Bowden confirmed what some close to the program suspected all along, that he would let a brewing quarterback controversy simmer to the point that there would be no decision to make. It was a safe fall-back position.
"I'll let it handle itself. We're what, on a four-game winning streak with him?" Bowden said. "If you had a pitcher going with a no-hitter, would you take him out and relieve him a little bit?"
Not now. That, however, wasn't the case in the preseason.
"When we started off in (preseason) practice, I'm thinking, 'Sexton's losing it. He can't hit anybody,'" said Bowden, who now admits that the son of long-time assistant Billy Sexton may be one of those rare players who is better on game day than he is at practice.
Sexton doesn't hide his indifference toward practice. In fact, when asked about Rix's return to practice, he took a subtle jab at the senior.
"Chris is such a great practice player," Sexton said. "I sense his presence."
Sexton's presence on the field with the lights on, however, has rendered the quarterback controversy null and void. To say that has caught Bowden by surprise would be an enormous understatement.
"It's tough, something I never expected to happen, that Wyatt would be winning these ballgames for us right now," Bowden said. "But that's the way it is. You've got to put team first."
Offensive Line Coming Up Big
Early season injuries threatened to ravage what was supposed to be the Seminoles' team strength, its veteran offensive line.
Though five starters returned from 2003, two center David Castillo and guard Bobby Meeks were on the shelf in the season-opening loss at Miami. By early in the third quarter, guard Matt Meinrod had joined them with a season-ending knee injury. That doesn't even count tight end Donnie Carter, FSU's most athletic player at a position the Seminoles hoped to utilize more often this fall. He also was felled by a season-ending knee injury.
"It was devastating to us to lose offensive linemen like we did," Bowden said. "That was one of the strongest parts of our football team coming in."
Without the group, the Seminoles were unable to run out the clock against the Hurricanes, ultimately falling 16-10 in overtime.
"You're just not as good (without those starters)," Bowden said. "You can't run the ball as good. You can't block as good. Now it's beginning to happen. You've got two of them (Meeks and Castillo) back, and (guard Cory) Niblock is beginning to fit into (Meinrod's) position."
Despite the injuries, FSU did have the luxury of what arguably has become the best offensive tackle tandem in the country. All-American Alex Barron and senior captain Ray Willis consistently have performed at a high level, teaming with tight end Paul Irons to help spring the outside running attack, led by tailbacks Leon Washington and Lorenzo Booker.
Over the course of FSU's five-game winning streak, through their rout of Virginia, the Seminoles rushed for 1,136 yards. That's an average of 227 yards per game. Against the Cavaliers, strong blocking sprung Booker and Washington for a combined 191 yards on 31 carries. Virginia coach Al Groh called that development the most important of the game.
On top of that, Sexton was sacked just four times in his first three starts, and he completed 66 percent of his pass attempts. The fact that Sexton will stay in the pocket unlike Rix, who often would nervously scamper into trouble allowed the line to provide maximum protection without committing the entire backfield to help.
By putting their line back together, the Seminoles have been able to stay in the national title hunt, just where they expected to be when the season began.
Linebackers Rising To Challenge
Throughout the week leading up to Virginia's visit to Tallahassee, FSU's linebackers grew weary of all the praise being heaped upon the Cavaliers' highly publicized quartet of Ahmad Brooks, Darryl Blackstock, Kai Parham and Dennis Haley. That served as fuel for a unit that takes a back seat to no other group when it comes to talent.
"We've got more depth than we've ever had at linebacker," Bowden said, rattling off the names of Ernie Sims, A.J. Nicholson, Sam McGrew, Buster Davis, Ray Piquion and Marcello Church. "(They) get a lot of reps, they stay fresh, a lot of good morale. They didn't like being told they wasn't the best group in the country. They responded to that."
Sims was a terror against Virginia, registering nine tackles, including three for losses. In addition to a pair of sacks, he also blocked a punt for a safety. Nicholson was next in line with seven tackles, as FSU's linebacker corps combined for 43 stops on 67 snaps.
Meanwhile, Virginia's quartet combined for 29 tackles, including a team-high 11 by Brooks, against the Seminoles. A semifinalist for the 2004 Butkus Award, Brooks will be best-remembered by FSU fans for getting trucked by Booker on his six-yard touchdown run in the second quarter, and again by Irons after a reception between the hash marks.
If the play of Sims & Co. didn't send a message, the blasts of Booker and Irons through the 260-pound Brooks probably did.