October 26, 2005
TALLAHASSEE - Turning Duke's Wallace Wade Stadium into a personal playground certainly doesn't constitute much of a feat, but what Florida State accomplished there in a recent 55-24 win might send shivers down the spines of ACC defensive coordinators.
Leading 24-14 midway through the third quarter, FSU coach Bobby Bowden put the game in the hands of his youngest offensive players, then watched them work their magic.
With redshirt freshman quarterback Drew Weatherford still directing the show, the Seminoles put together a methodical eight-play, 78-yard touchdown drive. That's not exactly newsworthy, unless you consider that true freshmen - tailback Antone Smith and wideouts Rod Owens and Greg Carr - accounted for every inch.
It was a revealing glimpse into the future for an FSU team that leads the ACC in total offense this season.
"It's just telling everybody, 'Don't sleep on Florida State in the future,'" said Carr, the towering 6-6 wideout who collected three touchdown passes against the Blue Devils. "Look at the freshman guys we've got and some of the younger guys we've got coming back next year. We've just got to keep working hard and let everybody know Florida State is coming back."
The Atlantic Division-leading Seminoles have played more freshmen on offense this season than perhaps any time in Bowden's 30 years at the helm. You can't blame him, considering that first-year players accounted for 16 of FSU's 31 touchdowns through the first seven games.
As good as things are going in 2005, the Seminoles still appear to be a year away from national championship contention. But the continued development of the offense, while leaning heavily on youth, could give them a slugger's chance against anyone should they advance to the ACC title game.
"The freshmen on our team are really amazing," said Weatherford, the top freshman quarterback (statistically) in the country. "I'm really excited about our future."
Weatherford's development has been nothing short of meteoric. Coming off May ankle surgery, he entered two-a-days in a battle with Xavier Lee for the starting job and won. He's not only been winning since, he's been maturing quickly along the way.
In six series against Duke, he led FSU's offense to five scores before Lee took over down the stretch. After throwing three interceptions a week earlier in the loss at Virginia (the Cavs dropped three others), he offered up only one on a late first-half bomb as the Seminoles tried to get into field goal position.
Fearless and strong, Weatherford is seeing the field better than Chris Rix ever did in his four years as a starter. When Weatherford and Lee combined to complete passes to 14 different players against Duke, it marked the fifth time in seven games that 10 or more Seminoles collected receptions. More importantly, Weatherford didn't lose his rhythm when he returned after sitting out for two series in the first half.
"Drew did a great job in that regard. I think every time he was in the game we scored, except right before the half when he threw a long bomb and they intercepted it," Bowden said. "That's a good sign."
While the Blue Devils may be a poor measuring stick - FSU had game-planned to get as many first-year players as possible playing time - the youngsters' contributions still were impressive. True freshmen accounted for 217 total yards and five touchdowns. That's out of 539 total yards, of which 376 came in the passing game from Weatherford and Lee, also a redshirt freshman.
Smith, who had played sparingly in three games behind senior Leon Washington and junior Lorenzo Booker, looked comfortable for the first time this season in his advanced role. He carried seven times for 76 yards, including an improbable 45-yard touchdown run, on which he converted a fourth-and-two play by breaking five tackles behind the line. That delighted Bowden, who was not pleased with the way his veteran runners performed.
"We were determined to get (Smith) in," Bowden said. "I don't think our other running backs were running very well. I thought they were dancing too much and trying to pick their way too much. ... We were determined to get him in the ballgame more, and we thought we were going to be able to. He responded."
Sixth-year senior center and fellow Palm Beach County native David Castillo gave Smith some words of advice going into the game.
"I said, 'Make good use of your touches and hold onto the ball,'" Castillo said. "I haven't seen a run like that since Greg Jones against Clemson (in 1999) before the half. ... The five fans that were here cheering for Duke were thinking they made the tackle, and all of a sudden he just spits out of there and just takes it to the house."
Carr's exploits are becoming more commonplace. He gradually is approaching the status previously reserved for Georgia Tech super sophomore Calvin Johnson, the ACC's rookie of the year in 2004. And Carr is doing it with far fewer touches, in part because of FSU's staggering depth at wideout.
"This is the first time I had more than three catches (in a game) and my first three-touchdown game," said Carr, who caught a season-high six receptions for 95 yards. "I was just trying to get over that three mark."
Eight of Carr's first 16 receptions went for touchdowns (FSU had only 16 TDs as a team), and his 415 receiving yards were second only to junior Chris Davis.
"I still felt like I've got a long way to go," said Carr, who dropped a first-half pass on third down and couldn't wrestle an interception away from Duke cornerback John Talley. "I hate to drop any passes. I feel like I've got to make every catch, because I never know when my opportunity may come again."
Perhaps the best sign of the emerging youngsters is that there appears to be no jealousy on either side of the issue. The veterans have accepted their roles as leaders and are sharing their experience with what is obviously a very talented crop.
That harmony has been missing in recent seasons. Now that it has returned, it could be a sad tune for ACC opponents over the next few years.
FOES EXPLOITING LINE, CORNERBACKS
FSU defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews isn't quite ready to sound the alarm, but it's becoming clear that his unit is not quite what it was cracked up to be in the preseason.
In a year when the offense was expected to develop slowly, the defense was expected to carry the load until it got up to speed. That hasn't happened every week, in part because the lack of depth along the front and inexperience on the corners have been exploited.
"Naturally, it concerns me," Bowden said.
For the third time in as many seasons, and the only times since joining the ACC in 1992, the Seminoles allowed 20 or more points in three consecutive league games: wins over Wake Forest (41-24) and Duke (55-24), sandwiched around a 26-21 loss at Virginia.
The Seminoles allowed 328 yards and 24.7 points during that stretch, while forcing only two turnovers. In fact, FSU had forced at least one turnover in 66 consecutive games, dating to the 2000 game against Georgia Tech, before coming up empty-handed in consecutive contests against the Deacons and the Cavaliers.
While Andrews continues to play many young players, both out of necessity and with an eye to the future, the Seminoles have paid dearly, surrendering six plays of 31 or more yards in that three-game stretch. Three of those plays resulted in touchdowns.
The numbers actually could be worse, if not for a half-dozen pass interference penalties by first-year starting cornerbacks, freshman Tony Carter and senior Gerard Ross. Many of those extended drives that resulted in scores.
"It will get us beat in close games," Bowden said of the penalties, which have climbed steadily in recent weeks. "We've got to learn to play without penalties, or we will really get hurt."