Nov. 1, 2003
by Bo Rottenborn
In renewing perhaps the most intense rivalry in the last quarter century, fifth-ranked Florida State (7-1) comes to Notre Dame Stadium this weekend to take on the Irish (2-5), which will face a top-five team for the second time in as many home games. Both squads have boasted impressive passing games at times this season, while also possessing solid defensive units.
After losing nine games over the previous two campaigns, the Seminoles have regained their familiar form as national-title contenders this season, losing just once in their first eight games.
That defeat was a 22-14 decision against Miami last month. The Hurricanes scored the first 22 points of the game prior to the Seminoles finding the scoreboard with just under five minutes remaining in the third period.
Though only once beaten, Florida State has been seriously challenged on two other occasions. On Sept. 13, the Seminoles were down 13-0 against Georgia Tech with eight minutes remaining in the game prior to getting a pair of touchdowns to pull out a victory. On Oct. 18 at Virginia, Florida State led by just two, 16-14, late in the third quarter before tacking on a final field goal to assure victory.
The other five Seminole victories – against North Carolina, Maryland, Colorado, Duke and Wake Forest – were by a combined margin of 223-48. The 48-24 triumph over the Demon Deacons last weekend was the 339th for head coach Bobby Bowden, making him the winningest major college football coach in history.
While the Seminoles have faced just one team in the current top 25, Notre Dame’s slate thus far has included six. The Irish also have seen four of their games decided by six points or fewer. Their victories came on the opening weekend in overtime (29-26) against Washington State, now ranked sixth, and Oct. 11 at Pittsburgh (20-14), which was ranked 15th at the time.
Notre Dame has suffered lopsided defeats against Michigan and USC – both currently among the top dozen teams in the nation – and also has lost to #10 Michigan State, #17 Purdue and Boston College.
Last week it was the Eagles who built a 24-6 lead before an Irish comeback, capped by a 25-yard touchdown by Carlos Campbell after a Nate Schiccatano blocked punt with 3:34 left, gave Notre Dame a one-point lead. Boston College then hit a field goal with 38 seconds remaining for a 27-25 victory.
Notre Dame’s passing game was a catalyst for its comeback a week ago. Freshman quarterback Brady Quinn was 23 of 39 for 350 yards and two touchdowns. It was the most passing yards for an Irish quarterback since Joe Montana threw for 358 vs. USC in 1978.
Since taking over the starting position four games ago, Quinn has thrown for 848 yards, an average of 212 per game. On the year, he has completed 47 percent of his passes for 987 yards and five scores.
Perhaps the most striking thing about Quinn’s group of targets is its depth. Against Boston College, he found 10 different passcatchers, marking the fourth time this season the Irish have had eight or more different players catch balls. On the season, 16 different Irish players have receptions.
A pair of sophomore receivers has combined for 42 catches, with Rhema McKnight having 26 for 353 yards and Maurice Stovall pulling in 16 for 295 yards. Each has a pair of touchdowns, as well.
Senior Omar Jenkins, the only Notre Dame receiver with more than one season of monogram-level experience, has 22 receptions this season for 189 yards and a touchdown.
The tight end position has been utilized greatly in the Irish passing game this season, despite the preseason loss of returning starter and fifth-year senior Gary Godsey. Replacing him has been a trio of players: seniors Jared Clark and Billy Palmer and sophomore Anthony Fasano. Those three have combined for 24 catches and 248 yards. In 2002, Notre Dame’s tight ends had 24 receptions all season. In the last Irish home game, Fasano made a diving catch in the end zone to tie the game against USC, 14-14. That marked the first touchdown by a Notre Dame tight end in 23 games, since a five-yard score by John Owens in 2001.
Florida State’s passing game also has been its major source of offense. Junior Chris Rix is in his third season as the Seminole starter, having already passed for 6,469 yards in his career, second in school history only to 2000 Heisman Trophy winner Chris Weinke. This season, Rix has completed 59.2 percent of his passes for 2,051 yards and 13 touchdowns, while being picked off six times. His passing efficiency of 140.47 places him second in the Atlantic Coast Conference to North Carolina State’s Philip Rivers.
Rix has exploded a couple of times this season. Against Colorado on Sept. 20, he was 30 of 39 for a career-high 394 yards and two touchdowns before giving way to backup Fabian Walker. Last week against Wake Forest, Rix threw for 339 yards – matching Bowden’s win total – and a pair of touchdowns in just three quarters.
Juniors P.K. Sam and Craphonso Thorpe have been Rix’ favorite targets this season, combining for 71 receptions, 1,044 yards and nine touchdowns. Sam has 36 catches for 505 yards and a pair of scores, while Thorpe has one fewer reception, but has 639 yards and seven touchdowns.
Both had huge days against the Buffaloes. Thorpe’s 205 yards on eight grabs made him just the fourth player in school history to roll up 200 receiving yards in a game. Sam caught 10 balls for 119 yards.
On the other side of the ball, Florida State has had one of the top defenses in the nation this season. It is ranked among the top 20 in the country in every statistical category, yielding just 280.1 yards and 12.1 points per game, while forcing 22 turnovers.
In addition to consistently holding opponents to short gains, the Seminoles have been adept at creating big plays. Through seven games, Florida State had 68 tackles for loss, 23 sacks, nine interceptions, 13 fumbles caused and three blocked kicks.
The Seminoles have been particularly effective in pressuring opposing quarterbacks, something they will try to do against Notre Dame’s freshman signalcaller. In addition to its 23 sacks, FSU had hurried the quarterback on 64 occasions. Adding the interceptions and 53 passes broken up means that opposing passers are being directly harassed or victimized by the Florida State defense more than 21 times per game.
Senior tackle Darnell Dockett leads the ‘Noles with 13 tackles for loss and 10 hurries, while junior end Eric Moore has a team-high 4.5 sacks, though 13 different players had been in on at least one sack through seven contests.
Notre Dame’s defense has been a strength at times this season. It has been especially tough against opposing rushers, highlighted by surrendering just 43 yards a week ago to Derrick Knight, who came into the game as the nation’s leading rusher.
Defensive stars for the Irish have been senior linebacker Courtney Watson and junior end Justin Tuck. Watson has 25 more tackles than any other Irish player despite missing the opener. He has 69 on the season, an average of 11.5 per game, including five behind the line of scrimmage. Tuck has 38 tackles, including seven sacks, ranking him among the top 15 in the nation in that category. He also has forced a pair of fumbles.