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Criticized Offense Diverse, Successful

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

November 3, 2003 TALLAHASSEE — Bobby Bowden could hardly believe the question posed to him on his weekly television show, by a Florida State fan, no less. “Are you going to fire your son?” the caller asked. Third-year offensive coordinator Jeff Bowden has replaced quarterback Chris Rix as the most highly scrutinized person in the Seminoles' program. In some respects it comes with the territory, because in the last decade fans have called for the ousters of former FSU play-callers Brad Scott and Mark Richt at various times. The elder Bowden, of course, opened himself up to criticism about Jeff by circumventing the university's nepotism policy to promote his son after Richt left to take the Georgia job. At the same time, it seemed ludicrous to pose such a question at a time when the Seminoles were leading the ACC in total offense. “Jeffrey does what I want him to do,” Bowden said. “I nearly want to say, ‘OK, let's get rid of Jeffrey. Now who do y'all want to hire in his place?' … He's like the rest of them. Offense is a fickle thing. It's fickle. Sometimes you're hot, sometimes you're cold. Jeffrey will get better and better and better. So anyway, it rankles me.” Jeff Bowden's critics even have included his older brother, former Auburn coach and current ABC television analyst Terry Bowden, who gave Jeff his first job calling plays at Salem (W.Va.) College more than 20 years ago. The fans who have been critical of FSU's play-calling, however, haven't been paying close enough attention. Aside from the Seminoles' four-turnover performance in a 22-14 loss to Miami, which was played in miserable weather conditions, the offense has been highly efficient, if not downright resourceful. Despite injuries in the backfield, a re-tooled and less than healthy offensive line and the sometimes erratic play of Rix, Jeff Bowden managed to come up with plans good enough to post eight victories over the first nine games. FSU has won by leaning on the short passing game (North Carolina, Wake Forest), by turning to the ground game (Virginia) and by throwing the ball deep (Colorado, Duke, Notre Dame). Adapting to opposing game plans, in actuality, has been a Florida State strength. Even in a 14-13 win over Georgia Tech, Jeff Bowden had enough sense to open the passing game up to erase a 13-0 deficit in the final quarter, after unsuccessfully trying to punish the Yellow Jackets on the ground. Of course, it also has helped that FSU's top-rated ACC defense has been dominant enough to give the offense a chance in every game. As for his son, Bowden is confident that growing up in the home of the nation's all-time winningest coach has successfully toughened his skin. “He's been around it all of his life,” Bowden said. “He knows the pitfalls. He knows what I went through. He knows that I got the same criticism he's getting. That's the advantage of being a coach's son. You know that there's a bad son. Anybody that's not a coach's son, they might think that everything's good and they'll get shocked.” Thorpe Shedding Unwanted Labels Through his first two seasons, FSU junior wide receiver Craphonso Thorpe was labeled as soft, both physically and mentally. Dropped passes, nagging injuries that kept him out of practices and short-armed attempts in traffic did nothing to quiet naysayers. Thorpe may have won ACC titles in the 100- and 200-meter dashes last season, but those feats seemed only to add to the perception that he's a speed guy whose skills don't measure up between the sidelines. Then, the day before the Seminoles played Wake Forest, Thorpe's grandfather unexpectedly passed away in Tallahassee. A fragile player may have reacted differently, but Thorpe responded with a pair of TD receptions in a 48-24 win. “He's really played well,” Bowden said. “He's been kind of our game-breaker this year.” Thorpe took it up another notch in FSU's
37-0 road shutout at Notre Dame, collecting seven receptions for 217 yards — the most ever against the Fighting Irish — and two touchdowns. That performance pushed his season totals to 42 receptions, 856 yards and nine TDs. In early November, he led the ACC in touchdown catches and yards per catch (20.4). The Notre Dame contest marked Thorpe's second 200-yard game of the season. It also represented a first for an FSU receiver since College Football Hall of Famer Ron Sellers turned the trick for the Seminoles more than 30 years ago. Perhaps the strongest testament to Thorpe's turnaround this season has been his ability to get on the same page as Rix. The two players are not close personally. In fact, one of Thorpe's best friends is former FSU quarterback Adrian McPherson, who took the job from Rix following last season's loss to Notre Dame. “I think Chris is getting more confidence in himself,” Thorpe said after the Notre Dame win. “He is giving the wide receivers good chances to make the catch.” Meanwhile, a grown-up Thorpe is making the best of that opportunity, shedding his label as a soft track guy and replacing it by becoming the ACC's best deep threat. Bowden: Another Outstanding Job A year ago at this time, many fans wondered if Bobby Bowden would ever track down Penn State's Joe Paterno as the nation's winningest coach. Bowden did that against Wake Forest, then tacked on win No. 340 for a two-game cushion in the wake of the Notre Dame triumph. After watching nine losses in the 2001 and 2002 seasons, plus off-field problems and an obvious lack of on-field chemistry, even some long-time FSU observers wondered whether Bowden would grow weary and step aside. Instead, he's turned his attention to pulling the program back together. No, Bowden isn't as involved in the day-to-day coaching responsibilities as he once was, but he was wise enough to see that if the Seminoles were going to get back to their glory days form, they would have to do it together. Bowden downplayed his role in the reversal, which has the Seminoles on the cusp of another BCS berth and an 11th ACC title in 12 years. “I don't know that we aren't better when I get out of the way and let these guys coach,” Bowden said after the Notre Dame win. Perhaps that's true as far as play-calling and game-time decisions, but successfully bringing the team together — demanding that they stick together — has been no small feat. He's stuck with Rix at quarterback, despite his occasional lapses in judgment, balanced an overloaded offensive backfield without causing friction, and challenged his young players to step up and perform at a high level when veterans have gone down. The reward? Probably not an ACC coach of the year award. The Seminoles always are supposed to win, remember, and Wake Forest's Jim Grobe and Georgia Tech's Chan Gailey have the huge advantage of a surprise-team label. Bowden recently said his own vote probably would go to Gailey, who in turn nominated Bowden. But the Seminoles are still in the hunt for a third national championship, something they desperately want to deliver their coach before he hangs it up.