Before they were All-Americans and All-ACC selections, before they were senior anchors on one of the nation’s top offensive lines, they were four true freshmen making surprise starts in the biggest game of their lives.
For Josue Matias, Tre’ Jackson, Austin Barron and Bobby Hart, Florida State’s 18-14 win over Notre Dame in the 2011 Champs Sports Bowl is a fond memory. It’s where, for the first time, they came together and laid a foundation that has spanned their entire college careers.
“Probably the best memory is how nervous we were going into it,” Jackson said with a smile. “We were all thinking that we were ready and then the bullets started flying.
“That was the stepping stone.”
Perhaps it’s appropriate then that, three years after their coming of age, FSU’s senior trio of Matias, Jackson and Hart will take center stage against Notre Dame in a game that will define Florida State’s season.
The No. 2 Seminoles will host the No. 5 Fighting Irish Saturday at Doak Campbell Stadium (8 p.m., ABC).
Three years ago, FSU expected its offensive line to be a team strength. Its freshman crop of linemen, while deep and talented, wasn’t part of the plan.
The 2011 season marked Year 5 of position coach Rick Trickett‘s rebuild, and the Seminoles boasted three senior starters.
But a rash of injuries to tackle Andrew Datko and guard David Spurlock, as well as to JUCO transfer Jacob Fahrenkrug, left the Seminoles in a precarious situation by the end of the season.
It was in Orlando, site of the Champs Sports Bowl, that Trickett and coach Jimbo Fisher made the call. Senior left tackle Zebrie Sanders would start his final collegiate game. The rest of the line would be populated by freshmen. Injuries had forced Barron and Hart into action earlier in the season. Guards Matias and Jackson, however, were set to start for the first time.
“I remember Fahrenkrug got hurt,” Matias said. “Then all of a sudden, me, Tre’ and Austin Barron, we all got thrown in the fire.”
“Thrown in the fire” is about right.
The Fighting Irish arrived with a fierce pass rush, led by star defensive linemen Aaron Lynch, Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt, and, for two quarters, gave a rude welcome to FSU’s four freshmen.
FSU’s line allowed four first-half sacks and, a few months later, it was revealed that FSU quarterback EJ Manuel suffered a broken leg during the game.
The Seminoles trailed 7-0 at halftime and were searching for answers.
That’s when Sanders, the lone senior on the line, settled down his younger teammates.
“He got all of us right,” Jackson said. “And then we came out in the second half and the game felt like it had slowed down so much.”
The change wasn’t immediate – Manuel was sacked on FSU’s first drive of the third quarter and the Seminoles fell into a 14-point hole.
But the freshmen eventually found their footing. They kept Manuel upright for the rest of the game and paved the way for the Seminoles to score 15 fourth-quarter points on the way to an 18-14 victory.
“They were blitzing at us and all of a sudden we just started picking them up and the rest was history,” Matias said.
Added Fisher, “It was a big turning point for them in their ‘acceptance’ to college football.”
Matias, Jackson and Hart have since been mainstays on FSU’s offensive line and have a combined 98 career starts between them. Along with left tackle Cameron Erving, they helped FSU to end a seven-year drought without an ACC championship in 2012. And in 2013, they pushed FSU’s offense to record-setting production on the way to the 2013 national title.
Barron, after a year backing up Rimington Trophy winner Bryan Stork, started the first five games of this season before suffering a broken arm.
There are plenty of signs that show just how far the line has come since the Champs Sports Bowl. Besides paving the way for an offense that scored more points than any team in major college football history, the line also blocked for Devonta Freeman, who became FSU’s first 1,000-yard rusher since 1996.
Three of the four true seniors have since earned All-ACC honors and Jackson and Matias are both considered among the top draft-eligible guards for 2015.
“I feel like we all came a pretty good way,” Jackson said.
“We bonded with each other. The bond we have with each other now is crazy. You can’t imagine it.”