2002 Toyota Gator Bowl
Virginia Tech vs. Florida State
by Will Stewart, TechSideline.com, 12/28/01
Tuesday, January 1st, 2002, 12:30
Shortly after noon on New Year's Day, two teams looking to start off the year with a bang will meet up in the 2002 Toyota Gator Bowl.
The 2001 football season can be characterized as a disappointment for both Florida State (7-4, 6-2 ACC) and Virginia Tech (8-3, 4-3 Big East), and it can be said that both teams simply couldn't overcome major personnel losses and continue their strings of seasons with double-digit wins.
The Hokies, who had won 11 games each of the past two seasons, suffered a surprising loss at home to Syracuse and a humiliating loss on the road to Pittsburgh. For Tech, the loss of quarterback Michael Vick to the NFL and Lee Suggs to a knee injury derailed an offense that wasn't potent enough to keep up with a powerful defense (2nd in the nation in yards per game) and special teams (7 blocked kicks and 3 TD's scored).
Meanwhile, Florida State had an incredible run of fourteen 10-win seasons broken. The Seminoles lost 25 seniors who played for a national title the past three seasons, and that, coupled with a slew of injuries, made the 'Noles positively ordinary. They suffered blowout losses at the hands of North Carolina, Miami, and Florida on the road, and they lost their first ACC home game ever when North Carolina State bumped them off in Tallahassee. FSU failed to win or share the ACC title for the first time since entering the conference.
Florida State Fast Facts
FSU is 7-4, 6-2 in the ACC. They have outscored their opponents by a narrow margin (for them) of approximately 34-26 points per game. Here's a look at their season.
Last season, Florida State was 11-1 in the regular season and lost in the national championship game to Oklahoma. FSU was ranked preseason #4 by Athlon Magazine this year (right behind the #3 Hokies) and #7 by The Sporting News.
Head Coach: Bobby Bowden is in his 26th year as head coach at Florida State. He is 322-91-4 overall, including head coaching stints at Samford (1959-1962, 31-6-0), West Virginia (1970-1975, 42-26-0), and FSU (249-59-4). Bowdens 17-6-1 bowl record and .729 bowl winning percentage rank first all-time. Only Joe Paterno (20) has won more bowl games.
The Last Time: The Seminoles beat the Hokies 46-29 in the 1999 national championship game. The 'Noles built a 28-7 lead on the strength of a blocked punt for a TD and a punt return for a TD. The Hokies roared back behind freshman QB Michael Vick and took a 29-28 lead heading into the fourth quarter, but the 'Noles converted a key fourth-and-1 to regain momentum. FSU scored a TD to go up 36-29, turned a Vick fumble into a field goal, and tacked on an insurance touchdown for the win. Tech outgained FSU 503-359, but the Seminoles had 170 yards on three long TD passes. Peter Warrick had two receiving touchdowns (64 and 43 yards) and a 59-yard punt return for a TD to be the game's most valuable player.
Depth Chart: FSU currently starts 3 players on offense and 4 players on defense who started last year. Their punter is a junior and returning starter, and their placekicker is a true freshman. With the exception of freshman QB Chris Rix, the Seminoles will start all juniors and seniors on offense against the Hokies, but their young defense is laden with sophomore starters (7, with three seniors and a junior thrown in).
Best Offensive Players: QB Chris Rix (165-286, 2,734 yards, 24 TD's, 13 INT's) was the ACC freshman of the year. Rix is athletic but inconsistent, and he can follow up an All-American play with a typical freshman mistake. He's a great scrambler, and it's worth noting that he averages a whopping 16.6 yards per completion (Tech QB Grant Noel averages 12.5).
Sophomore tailback Greg Jones is a horse (6-1, 235) and leads the Seminoles in rushing with 134 carries, 713 yards (5.3 ypc), and 6 TD's, despite being listed second on their depth chart behind Nick Maddox (98 carries, 497 yards, 3 TD's). Fullback William McCray (6-0, 228) gets a lot of work near the goal line, scoring 5 TD's in just 27 carries.
The FSU wideouts are not the star quality they have had in the past, but they're not slouches, either. They're led by Javon Walker (45 catches, 944 yards, 21.0 ypc., 7 TD's) and Talman Gardner (33 catches, 649 yards, 19.7 ypc, 11 TD's). Attrews Bell (29 catches, 433 yards, 14.9 ypc, 1 TD) is also a force, and tailback Nick Maddox has 26 catches on the year for roughly 10 yards a catch.
Along the line, FSU's only first-team All-ACC performer was junior tackle Brett Williams (6-6, 317), a three-year starter who anchors a starting o-line comprised entirely of juniors.
Best Defensive Players: Linebacker Bradley Jennings is FSU's top tackler with 121 stops, but he's currently suffering from a knee injury. Jennings got his knee operated on Dec. 14th, and he is questionable for the game (though he's listed as a starter on their depth chart). Behind him on the tackle chart is LB Kendyll Pope with 113, and rover Abdual Howard has over a hundred tackles as well (101).
The Seminoles' top pass rusher is DE Alonzo Jackson with 5 sacks, and the 'Noles only have 14 sacks as a team, most of them from their defensive line. They have 15 interceptions on the year, with LB Michael Boulware and FS Chris Hope tied for the team lead with 3 apiece.
Jennings, Hope, and DT Darnell Dockett (68 tackles, including an amazing 22 tackles for loss) were All-ACC first teamers.
Special Teams: Junior punter Chance Gwaltney averages 40.1 yards per kick. True freshman placekicker Xavier Beitia is 13-14 on field goals, with a long of 42. His only miss was a 42-yarder against Virginia. Oddly, he is just 44-48 on extra points. FSU has had 2 punts blocked and no field goals blocked.
Offensive Breakdown: As usual, the 'Noles are explosive (426 yards per game, good for 26th in the country), but the combination of youth at quarterback and inexperience everywhere else has given them trouble. Rix, as noted before, will alternate great plays with freshman mistakes. He is very talented physically and has a bright future, but he tends to make his mistakes when pressured.
The Seminole offense passes for 266.5 yards per game (26th in the nation) and runs for 159.6 per game (54th in the country).
As usual, the Seminoles concentrate their passing game on the wideouts (7 of their top 8 receivers are wideouts), mixing in a pass to the tailback occasionally to keep the defense honest. It's worth noting that of the two tailbacks, Greg Jones has just 3 receptions on the season, while Nick Maddox has 26, so when Jones is in the game, FSU is not likely to throw to him. The fullbacks (3 catches) and tight ends (6 catches) are generally not a factor in their passing offense.
FSU averages 4.0 yards per carry, with Jones at 5.3 the only runner averaging over 5 yards. Nick Maddox is a respectable runner (497 yards, 4.5 ypc), and look out for Rix when he scrambles; he's third on the team in net rushing yardage, with 99 carries for 389 yards (3.9 ypc). When you consider that Rix's totals include 166 yards lost rushing, primarily on sacks, his 3.9 yards-per-carry average is a testament to his ability to scramble.
Florida State probably won't be very successful running the ball, and if they're not, will abandon it quickly (they gained just 30 yards on 23 carries in the 2000 Sugar Bowl against VT). They know that their passing offense gives Tech trouble, as evidenced by the Sugar Bowl victory, and they'll quickly go to it if Jones and Maddox don't have success running the ball.
The key for the Hokies defensively is to stuff the run, and when FSU switches over completely to the pass offense, the Hokie corners will have to shut down FSU's receivers. The linebackers will have to watch for Maddox out of the backfield and contain Rix when he scrambles. Tech should be able to get a decent pass rush out of their DL, unlike the Sugar Bowl, when the Hokie defensive line was a non-factor. FSU has given up 29 sacks this year, and remember, that's with a mobile QB, not a slow-footed Chris Weinke.
Defensive Breakdown: The Florida State defense has been, to put it bluntly, poor this year, at least by FSU standards. They surrender 356 yards per game, just 43rd best in the country, and their scoring defense is #64 in the country at 26.1 points per game. FSU has a respectable 15 interceptions but a paltry 14 sacks on the year.
Defensive tackle Darnell Dockett, with his 22 tackles for loss, is an outstanding run-stopper, but he has zero sacks to his credit. The only consistently respectable pass rusher on the DL is defensive end Alonzo Jackson, with 5 sacks.
The book on FSU is that their secondary is their weakness and is capable of getting burned. The problem is that the Hokies' anemic passing game (179.4 yards per game, just 86th in the country) is not poised to take advantage of that weakness.
FSU's rush defense gives up 126.0 yards per game and is #32 in the nation. That could be a problem for the Hokies, particularly with Dockett plugging up the middle. If Tech's Kevin Jones finds no room in the middle and is unable to bounce it outside, then Tech could be in big trouble, particularly if Grant Noel has a poor showing.
The keys to this game are the FSU defense and Tech QB Grant Noel. The FSU defense, which improved against the run as the season wore on, has been described as "schizophrenic" and "Jekyl and Hyde."
If Noel comes out throwing poorly, as he did against Miami, FSU will be able to concentrate on the run. If Noel comes out like he did against UVa and BC (first quarter), the Tech offense will be tough for FSU to handle.
The FSU offense versus the Tech defense is fairly predictable. FSU shouldn't have much success running the ball (barring a surprise from Jones), and that will leave it up to Ronyell Whitaker and Larry Austin to take their receivers out of the game, and Ben Taylor and Kevin McCadam to take care of Rix's scrambling.
In the special teams war, I look for the Hokies to win this go-round. In the national championship game two years ago, Tech was obliterated on special teams, with the exception of some nice Hokie kickoff returns. Coach Beamer has no doubt got something special planned for FSU, like a blocked punt or two, to try to settle the score.
The unpredictability of the matchup between the Tech offense and the FSU defense makes this one hard to call, but I'm going to go with the Hokies.
Virginia Tech 24, Florida State 20.