October 4, 2004 TALLAHASSEE Whether the switch to Wyatt Sexton as Florida State's quarterback is temporary or permanent an early October straw poll of FSU players echoed the public sentiment to keep Chris Rix on the bench there is no debate over the team's emerging identity.
A speedy and talented defense will carry the Seminoles to their postseason future, but only if they get continued production from tailbacks Leon Washington and Lorenzo Booker.
In a league heavy with quality tailback tandems, Washington and Booker are emerging as the best complementary pair. That's not to take anything away from Virginia's Wali Lundy-Michael Johnson-Alvin Pearman trio, or the duos of Josh Allen-Sammy Maldonado (Maryland), Chris Barclay-Micah Andrews (Wake Forest), Frank Gore-Tyrone Moss (Miami) or T.A. McLendon-Bobby Washington (N.C. State).
"We have to run the ball," Leon Washington said. "If we run the ball (effectively), we're going to win the game and we'll be in the Orange Bowl (national championship)."
Washington, overlooked by every preseason publication, may be the ACC's top back. The diminutive junior gutted North Carolina's puny defense for a career-high 153 yards on 10 carries, pushing his season average to nearly eight yards a tote. It was his second 100-yard game of the season (he had 104 against UAB) and the fourth of his career.
Washington flourishes between the tackles. Not only does he seem to get better after taking the first hit, his vision allows him to lop off large chunks of yardage before the second hit ever comes into play.
Booker may be Washington's equal when it comes to elusiveness, but it's his ability to cut back and accelerate that separates him from other backs and defenders. The sophomore followed up a career-high 90 yards on 20 carries against Clemson with 84 on 13 attempts against the Tar Heels.
Through four games, the FSU tandem rushed for 661 yards on 108 carries, an average of 6.12 yards every time either player touched the ball. And while their pass receiving contributions remained modest (17 for 93 yards) into mid-October, they're threats to turn any screen or pass to the flat into a big gain.
"In my opinion we've got two of the best tailbacks in the country, and I wouldn't trade them for anybody," center David Castillo said. "It's very fun blocking for those guys, and they appreciate us."
What FSU coach Bobby Bowden likes best of all about his backs is their interchangeability and unselfishness.
"If you only have one and he gets tired, you get a lull (on offense)," Bowden said. "We have one that we can put in when the other gets tired, and both can do the same thing just in different ways. One throws a fastball and the other a curve."
Best of all, opposing defenses never know which pitch they will see.
Bowden's QB Comments Telling
The question came in point-blank format, just minutes after Sexton had finished off his first start at quarterback by passing for 193 yards and three touchdowns against UNC. When Rix's sprained right ankle heals, will he return as the starting QB?
"I wouldn't touch that one with a 10-foot pole," Bowden said.
Bowden's response to a second question along the same vein, however, may have proved more revealing. In short, college football's all-time winningest coach was asked if Sexton were to build a body of impressive work, would it go a long way toward keeping him in the starting role?
"I really think he can," Bowden said. "It's not like he's been starting for three years."
Ouch. Whether intended or not, it was clear that Bowden's comment had as much to do with his concerns over Rix's incalculable inconsistency as a fourth-year starter as it did Sexton's improvement with just seven significant quarters of football under his belt.
"All I want to see (from Sexton) is progress, and I think we saw that," Bowden said. "It seemed like he went a long time before throwing an incompletion. You can't ask for much more than leading us to touchdowns on our first two drives."
Regardless of the competition, Sexton started hot against the Tar Heels, completing 10 of 11 attempts mostly of the short variety for 79 yards. He kept the chains moving, then Washington and Booker finished the drives off with 18- and 12-yard touchdown runs.
It was the kind of work offensive coordinator Jeff Bowden had hoped to see from Rix. Bowden diversified FSU's offense during the offseason in an attempt to better control the football and play to the team's defensive strength.
Comparatively, the passing numbers of the Seminoles' two quarterbacks were telling. In nine quarters of work, Rix was 33-of-65 (50.8 percent) with three interceptions (two fumbles) and 321 yards, without a touchdown pass. In seven quarters, Sexton was 43-of-66 (65.1) with one interception, 402 yards and four touchdowns.
Perhaps more importantly, the offensive players seemed to be responding to Sexton's quirky demeanor, which included cracking jokes in the huddle, mimicking coaches and questioning play calls.
"He just tries to get guys to relax and get himself to relax," Castillo said. "He's done a great job. He just steps in there and plays football."
There is little doubt that Rix's act has grown tired to FSU players, coaches and fans alike. Even with his right ankle in a boot, he was very visible on the sidelines at the Carolina game, even taking time to do an extended interview during the television broadcast. It's exactly that kind of showy persona, coupled with his erratic on-field play, that has made people question whether he puts style above substance.
Conversely, the sleepy-eyed Sexton understands his physical limitations, takes advantage of what plays are called and doesn't get too high or low with the results. If the quarterback derby were a popularity contest, the wild cheers for Sexton from 82,000 fans (and the boos hurled at Rix) already have cast the deciding votes.
Bowden, however, isn't interested in popular decisions, just victories and winning performances. So far, Sexton has delivered those.