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Surprising Acc Title Brightened Program's Outlook, As 76-year-old Bowden Embraces Next Generation

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

Florida State (8-4) vs. Penn State (10-1), Jan. 3, 8 p.m., ABC By Brian Landman
St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times
December 22, 2005

TALLAHASSEE -- It's hard to downplay the impact of Florida State's stunning upset of Virginia Tech in the inaugural ACC championship game on Dec. 3, both for the present and perhaps the future.

The Seminoles had lost three straight, matching the longest skid in the three-decade tenure of 76-year-old coach Bobby Bowden. They also had tumbled from No. 9 in the AP poll to the ranks of "others receiving votes," the first time they had been out of the Top 25 since 2001.

With then-No. 5 Virginia Tech waiting in Jacksonville, few gave FSU much of a shot. Folks in Tallahassee began fretting about airfares to Boise, Idaho, for the MPC Computers Bowl. Fans clamored, again, for Bowden to fire his son Jeff, who became the offensive coordinator in 2001 after Mark Richt left for Georgia.

"Everybody around here was becoming pretty pessimistic about our football team and our players," redshirt freshman quarterback Drew Weatherford said. "The fans and just the whole feeling around Florida State wasn't very good for a while."

The mood and outlook changed dramatically after FSU beat the Hokies 27-22 to grab the league's automatic bid to the Bowl Championship Series. Back in the poll at No. 22, the Seminoles drew No. 3 Penn State in the Orange Bowl. That gave the team a chance to finish the season with consecutive wins against top-five opponents, something it hasn't done since 1999. That's also the only time the Seminoles won a BCS game.

"It would really be big if we won it," Bowden said, adding that Penn State looks as dominating as the teams he saw in the late 1960s and early 1970s. "It would really be big."

But make no mistake, FSU already has won big on some levels, beginning with the offense.

Weatherford, working mainly from the shotgun and with three or four receivers for the first time in a month, performed solidly against the Hokies. He completed 21 of 35 passes for 225 yards and a touchdown. Those might look like modest numbers, but consider that FSU had averaged just 262 yards of total offense and 12 points in its three straight losses.

Most importantly, Weatherford threw no interceptions. He had 13 in his previous six games, many thanks to the constant pressure he faced behind an injury-riddled line that couldn't protect him even against some three-man rushes.

"To me, the offensive line is so important. Nobody will believe it, but it is so important," Bowden said. "I don't care how good a passer you have, if he don't have time to throw, you can't throw. I don't care how good your runners are, if you can't create some lanes, you can't run."

FSU had lost three starting linemen in the second half of the season, beginning with its top blocker, senior guard Matt Meinrod. Then guard/center John Frady went down, then left tackle Cory Niblock on the final play against Clemson.

That forced the Seminoles to rely on far less experienced players, such as redshirt freshman guard Cornelius Lewis and underachieving veterans Ron Lunford and Mario Henderson. The coaches also constantly shuffled the group, so it couldn't gain the chemistry it needed to stay in step.

Until the Virginia Tech game, that is. The Hokies sacked Weatherford just once. N.C. State, Clemson and Florida combined to sack him 11 times in the three straight losses.

"I'm definitely proud of those guys," senior center David Castillo said. "We've been taking a lot of heat lately, and we did a good job of giving Drew some time. When we give him some time, you saw what he can do."

Whether the spread offense will work as well against Penn State, or whether the patchwork line (which Bowden said "still scares me to death") does as well, is something to watch on Jan. 3.

But Lewis and sophomore guard Jacky Claude should be better next year. Assuming Niblock (knee) and Frady (shoulder) return from their surgeries, they also should be improved. Redshirt sophomore tackle David Overmyer struggled down the stretch, but he started all year. That should be a solid core to build around, and FSU is hoping to sign eight or more linemen in February, including two or three junior college transfers who might be mature enough to help immediately.

If nothing else, the offense received a badly needed jolt of confidence from the Tech win. That too bodes well for the future, especially if FSU can beat Penn State. Receivers Greg Carr, Fred Rouse, Kenny O'Neal, Rod Owens and Richard Goodman and tailback Antone Smith all are redshirt or true freshmen.

"Winning the ACC championship definitely gave us a spark and kind of got us going in the right direction," Weatherford said. "If we can finish off the season by beating a very good Penn State team, I really feel that will springboard us into our spring practices and the beginning of next year."

That should be evident on the other side of the ball, too. The 2005 defense relied on a number of talented neophytes, including ends Alex Boston and Neefy Moffett, linebackers Lawrence Timmons, Derek Nicholson and Gino Hayes, safety Roger Williams and cornerbacks Tony Carter, J.R. Bryant, Trevor Ford and Michael Ray Garvin. And don't forget that budding star tackle Andre Fluellen is just a redshirt sophomore, and cornerback Antonio Cromartie (a 2005 preseason Playboy All-American) will be back from his knee injury.

"We're playing a lot of young people, no doubt about it," Bowden said. "We've had to. And getting to this doggone bowl with that inexperience is big for us. It's going to seem nice next year going into the year, with no question marks at quarterback and no question marks at receiver and no question marks with some of these interior linemen who are playing as freshmen who normally would not."

Perhaps most important is what happened off the field on the eve of the ACC title game. Bowden gave an impassioned speech about how insulting it was that no one was giving FSU a chance against the Hokies. Castillo said he'd seen his coach upset before, but in his six years he'd never seen him as angry.

Senior tailback Leon Washington and Bunkley (doing his best William Wallace impersonation from "Braveheart") followed with similar addresses, but few Seminoles expected Weatherford to take center stage.

"Just to see little Drew Weatherford get up and go off on the team (was impressive)," Bunkley said. "He had everybody up, hooting and hollering. You like to see that in a young quarterback. He has that desire in his heart and that will to win. That's what I love about the guy."

"When (Weatherford) did that, we all got together," Washington said. "We knew. We just knew. A freshman doing that, that's leadership. I told him, ‘That leadership will carry this program a long way.'"

ORANGE BOWL AND BEYOND

Departing Players

Starters (13)

DT Brodrick Bunkley, OC David Castillo, FB James Coleman, P Chris Hall, RV Kyler Hall, TE Matt Henshaw, OG Matt Meinrod (pending NCAA appeal), LB A.J. Nicholson, WR Willie Reid, CB Gerard Ross, RB Leon Washington, FS Pat Watkins, DE Kamerion Wimbley

Other Contributors

TE Donnie Carter, LB Marcello Church, FB B.J. Dean, DS Myles Hodish, DE Willie Jones, OT Ron Lunford, LB Sam McGrew, TE Matt Root

2006 Returning Starters

Offense (5)

Pos. Name Ht./Wt. 2006 Class
QB Drew Weatherford 6-3/220 So.
WR Chris Davis 6-0/180 Sr.
LT Cory Niblock 6-4/301 Sr.
LG Jacky Claude 6-4/300 Jr.
RT David Overmyer 6-5/299 Jr.

Defense (5) DE Alex Boston 6-3/260 Jr.
DT Andre Fluellen 6-4/285 Jr.
LB Ernie Sims? 6-0/220 Sr.
LB Buster Davis 5-11/237 Sr.
CB Tony Carter 5-9/160 So.

Special Teams (1)

PK Gary Cismesia 5-11/206 Jr.

Other Tested Returnees

Offense

RB Lorenzo Booker, WR Greg Carr, RB Jamaal Edwards, WR De'Cody Fagg, OC/OG John Frady, OT Mario Henderson, QB Xavier Lee, OG Cornelius Lewis, WR Kenny O'Neal, WR Rod Owens, WR Fred Rouse, QB Wyatt Sexton, WR Joslin Shaw, RB Antone Smith

Defense

CB J.R. Bryant, DE Darrell Burston, CB Antonio Cromartie, DT Emmanuel Dunbar, CB Trevor Ford, KO Graham Gano, CB Michael Ray Garvin, DT Letroy Guion, LB Geno Hayes, RV Anthony Houllis, DB Darius McClure, DE Neefy Moffett, LB Derek Nicholson, DE D.J. Norris, LB Lawrence Timmons, FS Roger Williams

Projected 2006 Strengths

FSU fans have been longing for five frustrating years to see the explosive passing game that served as a program trademark from the late 1980s through the 1990s, and the wait may be over in 2006. Weatherford took some lumps this fall in his first season at the starting quarterback, but he appears to have the brains, arm, poise and leadership qualities that will combine to serve as the ultimate antidote to the recent (and painful) Chris Rix era. Plenty of talented receivers return, too. Several reliable veterans depart at linebacker and in the secondary, but the Seminoles have lots of young talent in both areas, plus one of the ACC's top coordinators in Mickey Andrews. Finally, Bobby Bowden is the winningest Division I-A coach in history for a reason, right?

Projected 2006 Questions

Even if Weatherford is ready to take the next step, will the Seminoles have enough of a ground game to offer the run-pass balance they'll need against top opponents? The overall talent at tailback is impressive, but is anyone ready for a break-out season? Where are the answers for a beat-up, thinned-out, patched-together offensive line that may (pending an NCAA appeal) lose its top two blockers? How about for a defensive line that will lose its top two playmakers? With an up-and-down kicker back and a solid punter gone, will the kicking game again end up costing FSU in the win column? Bowden can't coach forever, can he?

Chart By: Editor David Glenn