Friday, December 13, 2002
Only a one-ring circus for FSU's seniors
By Marc Connolly
MIAMI -- One out of three ain't bad. And one out of three ain't good.
That's the final national championship tally the upperclassmen on the Seminoles have on their record after losing their second title game in the last three years in a 13-2 loss to the top-ranked, yet underdog, Oklahoma Sooners in the FedEx Orange Bowl on Wednesday night at Pro Player Stadium.
Led by 14 starters -- 15 if you include academic casualty Snoop Minnis -- Florida State's senior class leaves with a 56-6 overall record the last five years (although a 1-3 record in championship games if you include their redshirt 1996 season). Their .903 winning percentage is best in the program's history. They never lost in Doak Campbell Stadium. They won five ACC titles, a Lombardi Award and a Heisman Trophy.
But only one ring, or one "piece of glass" as Bobby Bowden says. Not only does their losses in championship games to Tennessee at the Fiesta Bowl in 1999 and now to Oklahoma go down as wasted opportunities, it puts them in a dubious position to be called the Atlanta Braves of college football.
Must be something about that Tomahawk Chop.
"The most frustrating part of it all is that we could have made our mark in history," said center Jarad Moon. "We could have been the most decorated senior class in Florida State history, and we let it all slip away in a span of three hours. One more (championship) would have solidified it, but we'll never get the opportunity back now."
Perhaps the hardest part of losing this game was knowing the game was still in reach down to the final minutes, despite the fact that their offense was bamboozled by Oklahoma's drop-back D for most of the night.
"We just couldn't get the train on the tracks," said Chris Weinke, who certainly didn't dispel the "Curse of the Heisman" in throwing two interceptions and no touchdowns, while also fumbling away the ball at his own 6 to set up the game's only touchdown. "We would make one or two big plays and then get derailed again. We couldn't give our defense a rest."
"This is the longest time we spent on the field all season," said senior Jamal Reynolds, who sacked Josh Heupel just one time for a loss of seven yards. "Because of that, it contributed to physical and mental breakdowns."
The biggest blow to the defense was losing cornerback Tay Cody, who was taken to the hospital with an apparent spleen injury in the second quarter. Cody had intercepted a pass and forced a fumble before his exit.
And if any defense deserved a rest, it was the senior-led 'Noles unit that relatively kept Heupel (25-of-39 passing for 214 yards, one INT and no touchdowns) in check. Quentin Griffin's touchdown run in the fourth quarter was not its fault, as Weinke's fumble virtually put points on the board for the Sooners. That's what makes it so hard for defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews to console his seniors who will never don the garnet and gold again.
"It's very disappointing for those guys," said Andrews, who loses both his D-ends, outside linebackers, cornerbacks and strong safety from his defensive juggernaut. "They've done an awful lot, and to have it end like this really hurts. If you look at the stats, they met their objectives: They held them under 15 points, they set up a score, and they held them under 300 yards."
Yet, just like Weinke, Moon, RB Travis Minor, G Justin Amman and TE Ryan Sprague on offense, Andrews' senior defenders leave with only one Sears Trophy to show for their dominance.
"We pulled the trigger and the bullet run out of the barrel twice," said Andrews. "You just don't get those opportunities all the time. Who knows if we will three times in a row ever again."
"We never had a better shot than tonight," said Bowden of the last three bowl games, which includes last year's thrilling 46-29 victory over Michael Vick and Virginia Tech in the Nokia Sugar Bowl.
After venting for a short time in the losing locker room about how the offense wasn't prepared for Oklahoma's endless nickel sets and how they could have used the talents of the burner Minnis, many of the seniors reflected on what the group has accomplished, even with a few unkind Januarys.
"It was a nice run. You can't look at this as a disappointment," said Sprague, who caught one pass for 14 yards. "We had six months to be together with a great group of people. It's something I'm very proud of, this football season. There'll be no regrets. We have a wonderful amount of memories this group."
"How many people can say they played in two out of three championships? People probably won't remember that since we won only one title, but it's an accomplishment that's virtually unmatchable," said Moon. "We should have had two Heisman Trophy winners (Peter Warrick in '99, as well). We had D-ends coming out of our ears. We played with NFL pros every year.
"Our class should be remembered for pure excellence."
Also leaving the comforts of Tallahassee is offensive coordinator Mark Richt, who takes over for Jim Donnan at Georgia as soon as he gets back from South Florida. He says it was a tremendous blessing to have made championship game appearances an annual rite for passage for current 'Noles. Though he says this one hurts as worse as any loss he can remember because it's his last game at FSU, it's also because he knows he watched the Chris Weinke Era end more like a 'Choose Your Own Adventure' rather than the storybook. He shared a special relationship with his three-year starter at signal-caller since Weinke's age and maturity were atypical from that of the normal hotshot QB.
"I haven't seen him yet after the game, but I'll see him tonight," said Richt, who has been with FSU for the last 15 seasons. "I'll grab him in the hotel room if I have to. I doubt that he'll be on that charter flight home."
Like so many others who will now step aside for the next batch of unknowns, home will soon be located in a place that isn't down the street from menacing Doak Campbell Stadium. And there, only one ring will safely be tucked away when it could have easily been three.
Marc Connolly is a senior writer for ABC Sports Online.
|Florida State was a controversial choice in the 2001 BCS title game.|