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Defensive Strength Remains A Mystery

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

September 16, 2002 TALLAHASSEE - After watching his Florida State football team surrender 50 points in its first two games, Bobby Bowden issued a challenge to the Seminoles' defense.

“Somebody has got to step up and make a big play,” Bowden said. “It doesn't have to be just one guy. Somebody needs to make a play this week, somebody needs to make a big play next week. Back when we had Deion (Sanders) and Derrick (Brooks), those guys did it.”

More than a few defensive playmakers stepped to the fore in the Seminoles' 37-10 shellacking of defending ACC champion Maryland. FSU forced six turnovers - turning three first-half Terrapin blunders into 21 points - blocked a field goal (leading to a field goal) and matched its two-game sack total (three) for good measure.

For a team that had forced just four turnovers coming into the game, it was a start, but hardly the complete answer to lingering questions about FSU's defense. And it seemed unlikely that the Seminoles would have their questions answered any time soon, not with Duke heading to Tallahassee next.

Ideally, Maryland should have provided a far better gauge of how far FSU's defense has come since escaping Kansas City with a season-opening 38-31 victory over Iowa State. But the Terrapins are a one-dimensional (re: run-dimensional) shell of last season's championship team.

The reality is this: The Seminoles won't have any idea how good - or average - their defense is until they jump head-long into a four-game stretch that ultimately will shape their season. That defining stretch begins with consecutive Thursday night games at Louisville (Sept. 26) and home against Clemson (Oct. 3), followed by a trip to No.1 Miami (Oct. 12) and Notre Dame's first visit (Oct. 26).

“We needed everybody to step up,” said FSU junior linebacker Kendyll Pope, who contributed one of four interceptions against the Terps. “The coaches have really been stressing that. I'm listening. We're all listening. You could tell we've been getting closer and closer to making the big plays.”

What did the Seminoles learn after facing side-armed Maryland quarterback Scott McBrien and his hobbled backup Chris Kelley? They learned that cornerbacks Rufus Brown (one interception, one forced fumble), Stanford Samuels (one fumble recovery) and Bryant McFadden (two interceptions) can be effective against the league's worst passing offense. They also know they can provide some kind of pass pressure, if only on sure passing downs. Defensive ends Kevin Emanuel and Eric Moore were credited with one sack each, and there was ample pressure on McBrien and Kelley throughout the game. As far as defending the run, FSU's front seven limited the Terrapins to 57 yards on 22 carries.

It remains to be seen if middle linebacker Jerel Hudson is quick enough to cover backs or tight ends, or whether FSU's revolving tandem of safeties - the Seminoles started three different combinations in as many games - is up to the task of providing reasonable support against the pass.

More importantly, is the defense up to the challenge of finishing what it started? Instead of posting its first ACC road shutout win in 11 seasons, the Seminoles gave up 10 points after cruising to a 30-0 halftime lead. FSU has been outscored 46-31 in the second half this season. Seven of those points, however, were scored after Dominic Robinson fumbled away a late second-half punt against the Terps.

“Our goal is to play four quarters and get a goose egg,” Pope said. “That's the best way to make that statement to people who still say we're suspect.”

“To win big games and to get to the championship games, you're not going to do it without defense,” Bowden said. “I don't care how good you are. ... Our goal was for them to play 60 minutes. I felt our defense did that.”

Rix Making Better Decisions

After offering up three interceptions to just two touchdowns in the first two games, sophomore quarterback Chris Rix demonstrated enough poise to suggest he's coming along. Rix shrugged off a poor first quarter (one completion for eight yards) to throw for 227 yards and two touchdowns in a turnover-free performance against the Terps.

Though he repeatedly failed to find open receivers in the back-side flat while under pressure, Rix did not force a pass into zone coverage; clearly a sign of progress. In addition to better recognition of Maryland's multiple schemes, Rix was a bit more judicious when scrambling opportunities presented themselves. Twice in the first half he converted third downs with runs, leading to a pair of scoring drives.

“I didn't realize all that he did,” Bowden said of Rix, who finished 13-for-25 and added 23 rushing yards before departing with an elbow bruise with 6:30 to play. “I just realize that he did a pretty good job.”

Aside from well-placed touchdown passes to Anquan Boldin (19 yards) and Talman Gardner (56 yards), Rix's best play was a play-action fake from out of his own end zone. He connected with Boldin for a 44-yard gain.

Backup QB Stories Interesting

Redshirt sophomore quarterback Fabian Walker's long-awaited, albeit surprising, debut for the Seminoles finally came when he replaced Rix midway through the fourth quarter at Maryland. It had been 33 months since Walker showed up on the Florida State campus for the first time in January 2000.

Forced to transfer from FSU to Jones (Miss.) Junior College after his qualifying test score was thrown out by the NCAA Clearinghouse, Walker hadn't played in a game since the fall of 2000. For a while, it appeared as if he might have to wait another season to get any shot at playing time. A tender throwing arm prevented Walker from seriously challenging sophomore Adrian McPherson for the backup job during two-a-day drills.

Though Walker's arm is improving - he zipped a 39-yard strike to Craphonso Thorpe on his lone pass attempt - his appearance may have had more to do with McPherson's desire to redshirt than his own development.

McPherson, still hobbled by an ankle sprain suffered in practice just before the season opener, was unhappy about the mop-up action he received in FSU's win over Virginia. All along, he had hoped to be granted a redshirt - a desire initially shared by Bowden and the coaching staff - in order to gain a year of separation from Rix and get an earlier start on his bid to play basketball for the Seminoles.

It's unclear whether the coaching staff is willing to go with its original plan, but McPherson technically could still qualify for a medical hardship, providing FSU can provide proof that he is injured.

Davis Rejecting Redshirt Idea

Freshman linebacker Buster Davis, missing in action since the Virginia game (Aug. 31), finally returned to practice with the Seminoles on Sept. 9 after skipping a week. Considered one of the nation's top 10 linebackers when he chose FSU over Ohio State in February, Davis went AWOL after the coaching staff told him they intended to redshirt him this season.

A Sept. 1 meeting between Bowden, Davis and his family presumably had rectified the situation. But when Davis again failed to show up for practice, Bowden had no choice but to mete out stringent disciplinary guidelines before he could return to the fold.

Davis did not make the trip to Maryland and almost certainly will redshirt, unlike fellow freshman linebackers Sam McGrew and A.J. Nicholson. They saw special teams and mop-up action in the Seminoles' first three games.

Despite the proliferation of high-profile recruits on FSU's roster, Davis' displeasure over a redshirt season is a rarity. Bowden repeatedly has reminded signees that former All-Americans Peter Boulware, Peter Warrick and Andre Wadsworth each took redshirt seasons. It's still unclear whether Davis, a former Daytona Beach (Fla.) Mainland star, will stick it out or transfer at the end of the fall semester.