Noles look to end Death Valley struggles

October, 18, 2013
10/18/13
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The last Florida State quarterback to win a game at Clemson was a freshman.

It happened in 2001, and Chris Rix didn't realize he was supposed to be intimidated. He was from California, and the chaos of Death Valley was completely foreign to him. Ignorance, it turned out, was a luxury.

When Rix returned two seasons later, the noise and the energy and the crowd made for an overwhelming obstacle. James Robert Kennedy, the inspiration for the movie "Radio," led the Tigers down the hill and onto the field. The game hadn't begun, and Rix knew Florida State was in trouble.

[+] EnlargeJameis Winston
Melina Vastola/USA TODAY SportsJameis Winston will get his first taste of the Death Valley experience on Saturday night.
"We had just seen the movie," Rix said. "And I'm like, 'Oh, shoot.' "

The No. 3-ranked Seminoles, fresh off a 37-0 thumping of Notre Dame, were stunned by Clemson, beginning a run of five straight losses in Death Valley -- a streak that looms over them in Saturday's matchup like a black cloud.

In four of the five losses during this streak, Florida State was the higher-ranked team when it arrived in Clemson. The players have changed -- from the veteran Rix in 2003 to Clint Trickett making his first start in relief of an injured EJ Manuel in 2011 -- and the results have been the same. There have been close losses (a 35-30 final in 2011) and ugly ones (35-14 in 2005, part of a three-game overall losing streak to end the regular season).

For all of its success under coach Jimbo Fisher, all of the rebuilding the program has done in the past four seasons, this remains a towering obstacle, and the Seminoles are making it a point of emphasis this week.

"Twelve years? That's crazy," senior linebacker Telvin Smith said. "I know I haven't won there, and that's a goal of mine. That's what this team is about -- overcoming obstacles and being defiant."

And yet, Death Valley has a history of swallowing up the defiant and overwhelming the unprepared.

Few ACC venues provide the same unwaveringly intimidating atmosphere, from the crazed crowd to the deafening noise to the frenetic entrance Clemson's players make, charging down the hill and onto the field, ready for battle.

"It's a crazy atmosphere, especially at the beginning of the game," Smith said. "If you're not a strong-minded person, you can definitely get intimidated in there."

Fisher said the atmosphere at Clemson compares favorably to the most intense SEC stadiums, and he said he'll wear two sets of headphones just to tune out the crowd noise and ignore the claustrophobic confines. James Wilder Jr. said tailbacks can't hear a quarterback standing just a few feet away. Former FSU coach Bobby Bowden said Clemson and LSU were easily the loudest stadiums in which he ever coached. It's an environment tailback Karlos Williams said can't be replicated in practice, though he said Fisher tries to rattle his players by pumping in "terrible" music over loudspeakers during the week.

Still, as Fisher said, it's not the atmosphere that has stymied Florida State for the past 12 years -- it's the players on the field.

"Does the atmosphere make the players, or do the players make the stadium?" Fisher said. "First off, they have good players. Secondly, they're coached extremely well. And then third, to have a great environment of 80,000 folks that love football and are very passionate, I think all three of those things make it very tough to win in Death Valley."

When Florida State takes the field this season, again there will be a freshman at quarterback, and Jameis Winston insists he's not the type to be overwhelmed by his surroundings. Instead, he said, he's eager for the opportunity.

Many of Winston's teammates know exactly what to expect, however, and the memories of that 2011 loss remain fresh in their minds.

"We left with a nasty taste in our mouths last time," left tackle Cameron Erving said. "We were there, knowing we should've won that game. We're going up there now, knowing it's going to be a loud, hostile environment. It's setting up for a great game."

Looking back on that win in 2001, Rix said his naiveté was a weapon on the field but admitted he never would have imagined that 12 years later, Florida State would still be looking for its next win in Death Valley.

When Clemson and Florida State take the field Saturday, however, the magnitude of the game and the environment won't be lost on anyone. With 12 years of frustration behind them, and a national championship potentially on the horizon, the Seminoles know what's at stake.

"I'm ready," safety Terrence Brooks said. "They know the expectations for this game. It's going to be a good one, and I can't wait."

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