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Sept. 15, 2003
Jerry Kutz, courtesy of The Osceola –
People were coming up to defensive line coach Odell Haggins after Saturday night’s game, screaming “Great game!” Haggins wanted to correct them. “No, it was not a great game. It was great team unity.”
Haggins put his finger on the important distinction, a point that sadly evaded some during the emotion-packed game.
No, the offense did not look good. No, Chris Rix did not have a good night. No, the offensive line and running backs did not have much to brag about. No, the receivers did not catch every pass. No, the play-calling was not imaginative in the first half. No, the defense did not give the offense many opportunities or field position in the first half. No, the defense did not stop enough third-down conversions. And no, Mickey Andrews did not call a perfect game either.
And yes, everyone is concerned about each of those items. But there was a bigger victory Saturday night, one of cigar-passing value: Bobby Bowden gave birth to a team of unity Saturday night.
The 2001 and 2002 Seminoles would have lost that game. Those groups — notice I did not use the word “teams” — would have imploded after Rix threw the second interception. No one would have bothered to chase Georgia Tech defensive back Reuben Houston down after the interception, as Greg Jones did, because they would have been too busy sticking fingers in Rix’s face mask.
Last year, if a defensive player ran onto the field and into the offensive huddle, it would have been to inflict bodily harm on someone rather than to offer words of encouragement as defensive tackle Darnell Dockett did on the game-winning drive.
“That was big,” defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews said of Dockett’s impromptu cheerleading session in the Seminoles’ offensive huddle. “I asked Odell, ‘What is Dockett doing in the offensive huddle?’ Odell said, ‘Coach, he is just trying to get them going.’ So I said, ‘Send another one out there and get somebody to come help us in our huddle.’
“I think that is the thing this team has that we missed the last couple of years — they are together. I think our heart is a lot stronger now than it was the last two years. There’s more character, more fight, and it showed tonight.”
Unity is big. And it does not come easy or cheap.
You can practice harder to fix some of Saturday night’s mistakes. Your running game, and therefore play-calling, will improve with the addition of Leon Washington and Lorenzo Booker. But you do not just wave a magic wand and make the problems that existed in this program last year — problems as simple and as complex as trust — vanish. The coaches and players had to invest considerable time and emotional energy in developing better relationships among themselves.
And from all we had heard, things had improved. But Bobby Bowden and his coaches warned us that you do not know the truth about trust until there is adversity.
“Adversity,” he reminded us, “does not build character so much as it reveals it.”
Saturday was about as adverse as you want it. The offense managed only one first down in the first half, and that on a penalty, leaving the defense on the field for better than 23 first-half minutes. Given those circumstances, you would have expected defensive players to be very angry with the offense during that period of time.
There were no signs of it on the sideline.
As the offense was driving toward what could have been a 7-6 lead, Rix threw an interception. So, you might have expected harsh words — but that was not the case.
“I think tonight was a perfect chance to get down on each other, but we didn ‘t do that,” defensive ends coach Jody Allen said. “Everybody just kept fighting and found a way to win it anyway.”
“Nobody came down on anybody, pointing fingers, which is a big key,” receiver P.K. Sam said. “You can’t make a drive when everyone is negative. We had a couple of drops early in the game, but when it came down to clutch time we really made the plays.”
And, it would not have been a surprise to hear that the defense was losing confidence in the offense.
“When it looked like nothing was going our way, after a couple of turnovers, we were like, ‘OK offense, we got your back,'” cornerback Bryant McFadden said. “When we were in bad situations with field position, we just said keep working, keep working. We know we have talented guys on offense. We play against them every day, so we knew eventually they will make one big play to turn everything away and get the momentum back. And, that’s exactly what happened.”
The ultimate test came in the fourth quarter. FSU was still down 6-0 and knocking on Tech’s door when Rix threw a second pick. Generally, bad things happen after sudden momentum changes like that. And sure enough, two plays later, Tech running back P.J. Daniels broke a 47-yard run for a touchdown. It was shades of Notre Dame last year, when Rix turned the ball over and a demoralized defense did not cover his back.
It was a quitter’s paradise at that very moment. The balance of the season, and arguably the twilight of Bowden’s career, hung in the balance.
Were all these words about team unity just hot breath? Or, were we witnessing the labor pains of a “Big-team, little-me” team being born?
Two touchdowns behind with 11 minutes to go and an impatient crowd breathing down the struggling offense’s neck, Florida State mounted a comeback not dissimilar to Charlie Ward’s two-touchdown, fourth-quarter drive at Tech in 1992 or Chris Weinke’s frenetic finish at Clemson in 1999.
Rix said he was able to rebound because he has learned to block the good plays and the bad plays out and to just move on to the next play.
“We knew we needed points, but I knew we just had to keep composed and get first downs and not try to get it all at once,” Rix said. “In the past I tried to do it all on my own and try to get it all in one shot.”
Perhaps the warrior is maturing.
“We just wanted to keep (Chris) calm,” Sam said. “He had had a rough game. I had a rough game the first game. Everyone is going to have a rough game, and that’s why we are a team — to pick each other up.”
Perhaps Rix is finally among understanding peers.
Starting from the one-yard line and the two-yard line in the first half, FSU ‘s coaches called running plays and punted rather than risk the catastrophic turnovers that plagued Rix and this ballclub last year.
Perhaps the coaches have learned to pick their spots more carefully with Rix, especially when the defense is playing so well.
“The kids got together when we were down,” Haggins said. “Jeff Womble and Dockett came to me and said, ‘Coach, we are not going to lose this game.’ They had no fear in their heart whatever. We’ve got to play harder. Let’s make something happen. Let’s be disciplined. That’s the thing, unity as a team.”
Chris Rix did what Chris Rix does. Some plays are helter skelter, but there he was in the end zone with seven minutes remaining and his team down by six. A defensive stop, and the offense was back at it, receivers catching the ball and Rix not making a costly mistake.
“There were times when nothing would go Chris’ way, but he rallied in the fourth quarter, on those last two drives,” McFadden said. “You could tell that he was dog tired but he was not going to let us down. That’s the thing we need to know. We need things like that to happen for him to be the leader.”
More adversity was on its way. The Seminoles led 14-13 with 2:30 remaining and were facing a fourth-and-17 at the Georgia Tech 23. Should the coaches call for a 40-yard field goal and a possible four-point lead and risk the possibility of the third blocked kick this year?
Most of us would have voted yes.
In 1997, Bowden faced a similar situation in Gainesville with a 26-25 lead. That year he took the field goal to give his top-ranked defense a four-point lead with 2 minutes remaining. It did not hold up. I don’t know if that disappointment played into this decision, but he went for the knock-out punch against a reeling Tech defense. Craphonso Thorpe caught Rix’s offering and nearly got his feet in bounds for what would have been a first down and one of the gutsiest calls in the Bowden era.
But the ref said he did not, leaving the defense to bail their team, and their coach, out of what would have been an awful mess.
With the offense cheering wildly, the defense clinched the victory.
Dockett approached Bowden in the post-game locker room to ask if he could speak to the team.
“Let’s give the coaches three (cheers) because they hung in there with us,” Dockett reportedly said. “They didn’t fuss at us. They kept encouraging us.”
Dockett’s three cheers for the coaches is the clearest tribute that Bowden’s effort to rebuild trust and unity has taken root among his coaches as well as his players.
Some will squabble about play-calling and how Florida State was out-coached in this 14-13 victory. I won’t debate that. But what I will take from this game is that Florida State coaches and players enjoyed an even harder-to-come-by victory, one you don’t see every Saturday night.