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Stewart Mandel

The Weekend Review

Bowden's QB quandary at FSU may end up solving itself

Posted: Sunday September 26, 2004 7:51PM; Updated: Sunday September 26, 2004 8:15PM

  Wyatt Sexton
Wyatt Sexton will likey get his chance to start against a struggling North Carolina team on Saturday.

One of the biggest enigmas of Bobby Bowden's 29-year tenure at Florida State may be about to conveniently solve itself -- all because of an ankle sprain.

Besieged quarterback Chris Rix's injury on the third drive of Florida State's 41-22 win over Clemson on Saturday opened the door for untested sophomore Wyatt Sexton, who did what Rix hasn't been able to for four years now: avoid turnovers. Sexton finished a modest but respectable 17-of-26 passing performance for 162 yards, including a nifty 47-yard touchdown strike to Chauncey Stovall -- amazingly, the 'Noles' first TD pass of the season.

While only a complete sicko would wish injury on a player, there's no denying this one could work out in FSU's favor. What could have been a gut-wrenching decision for Bowden -- benching a fourth-year starter whom he's vigorously defended against a deluge of criticism -- may make itself. Rix was walking on crutches Sunday, and barring a dramatic improvement in his condition, Bowden, who said he wanted to make a quarterback announcement by Monday, may have no choice but to go with Sexton on Saturday against North Carolina.

"At least it's a good problem," Bowden said Sunday. "It might not be a problem. It might be cut and dried for us."

If Sexton goes out and has another good game -- and against the Tar Heels' miserable defense, it's hard to imagine he won't -- he may claim a permanent hold on the job. If he falters, at least 'Noles fans may finally understand why Bowden has been so persistent in sticking with Rix.

Rarely has college football seen such a polarizing player as Rix, the fifth-year senior from Santa Margarita, Calif. Thrust into the unenviable task of replacing Heisman Trophy winner Chris Weinke four years ago, Rix's inevitable growing pains were amplified by his admitted cockiness and off-field missteps. Teammates publicly turned against him midway through his sophomore year, and by last season his own fans were donning T-shirts reading "Rix happens."

FSU faithful were willing to give Rix the benefit of the doubt that, heading into his final season, he had changed his ways. But by the end of his first game -- a four-turnover performance against Miami -- the honeymoon was over. The home fans vigorously booed Rix at both last week's UAB game and then early against Clemson (he completed just 3-of-8 pass attempts before the injury). So energized were they to see the hometown kid Sexton succeeding on Saturday that they repeatedly broke out in chants of "Wy-att Sex-ton," even though it was the 'Noles' dominant defense that was doing most of the work against the Tigers. Meanwhile, the star-crossed Rix stood on the sideline with his helmet on, waiting for the call that never came.

Mind you, season-altering personnel changes are not made by a popularity contest but rather by the coaches who observe their players every day in practice. Bowden and his son, Jeff, the offensive coordinator, could have pulled the plug on Rix a long time ago. Clearly they didn't think Sexton was ready. From just watching him Saturday, he's certainly not the athlete that Rix is and really made only one truly impressive throw.

But more than any other position, quarterback is only partially about the physical side. In sharp contrast to Rix, Sexton was a picture of poise in the pocket, not panicking when his primary target wasn't open, not throwing off his back foot, not heaving up wild jump balls that force everyone watching to hold their breath. Considering the 'Noles' recent history, this is no small thing.

Florida State has arguably its most talented team since the Weinke era. The defense, led by stud cornerback Antonio Cromartie and the phenomenal young linebacker trio of A.J. Nicholson, Ernie Sims and Buster Davis, is flat-out dominant. They held Clemson to 173 yards of offense and picked off QB Charlie Whitehurst three times. Tailbacks Leon Washington and Lorenzo Booker are a great 1-2 punch. The offensive line and receivers are good.

But eventually, as with Miami, FSU will face a team (Virginia? Florida?) where the gap in talent is negligible, where any little mistake will be magnified, and it's been in those situations that Rix has hurt the 'Noles most. If Bowden wants to contend for another national title, he may have to make a colossal decision: Does he go with the guy who can win it with his arm or does he go with the guy who won't lose it?

That is, if Sexton doesn't make it for him.

Player of the Week

Stewart Mandel will answer questions from readers each week in his mailbag.
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Garrett Wolfe, RB, Northern Illinois: Since when did Dekalb, Ill., become a hotbed for running backs? Last year it was Michael "The Burner" Turner, who finished second in the country in rushing. Friday night against Bowling Green, Wolfe, a redshirt sophomore, came off the bench in relief of injured starter A.J. Harris (who himself was averaging 109 yards per game) and carried 31 times for 202 yards and three touchdowns -- all in the second half -- in an important 34-17 victory. Wolfe, just 5-foot-7, 174 pounds, carried 14 of 16 plays during one stretch. Meanwhile, the Huskies, who went 10-2 last year but failed to secure a bowl berth when the Falcons beat them out for the MAC West title, established themselves as the team to beat in the division.

Honor roll

Florida RB Ciatrick Fason (31 carries, 210 yards, 1 TD) vs. Kentucky; N.C. State DE Manny Lawson (three sacks) vs. Virginia Tech; Ball State WR Dante Ridgeway (nine catches, 217 yards, three TDs) vs. Western Michigan; BYU WR Todd Watkins (nine catches, 211 yards, one TD) vs. Boise State; Purdue QB Kyle Orton (35-of-50, 366 yards, four TDs, no INTs) vs. Illinois; UAB QB Darrell Hackney (21-of-31, 398 yards, three TDs, one INT) vs. Memphis.

Team of the week

Wyoming: The Cowboys entered this season 9-37 since 2000, so beating an SEC team -- even one as dreadful as Ole Miss appears to be this season -- is a major milestone for the program. Highly touted juco transfer Joseph Harris ran for 121 yards on 23 carries and Wyoming's defense picked off Rebels QB Ethan Flatt four times in a 37-32 victory. The Cowboys have made significant strides under second-year coach Joe Glenn, who arrived in Laramie after winning three national championships at Northern Colorado and Montana, including a stunning win last season over Colorado State, but the bandwagon has remained mostly empty.

"I feel sorry for the other 11,000 who were disguising themselves as empty seats," Glenn said of the 22,331-person crowd. "The people who were here, I love 'em, they did a great job. But for those who were missing, you better start getting in on this. These guys just beat Ole Miss, the Cotton Bowl champions and a SEC team. What about that? Wow!"

Gratuitous props to ...

Clemson CB Justin Miller, for setting an NCAA record with 282 kick-return yards, including touchdowns of 97 and 86 yards, against Florida State; Texas RB Cedric Benson, for this third straight game of at least 180 yards rushing (despite sitting most of the second half) against Rice; Texas Tech, for its second straight comeback from at least 21 points, this time erasing a 30-5 deficit against Kansas to win 31-30; and Lee Corso, who's rarely right about anything, for somehow picking the Wyoming-Ole Miss upset.

You call this fun?

It's come to this for USC. Apparently bored by beating people 45-17 every week, the Trojans' defense took the first half off Saturday against Stanford, allowing 291 yards -- including an 82-yard J.R. Lemon touchdown on the last play before intermission -- and falling behind 28-17. How did they respond? By going out in the second half and holding the Cardinal to zero points and 36 yards. Afterward, star quarterback Matt Leinart told the Orange County Register, "I was walking around with a smile on my face [at halftime]. It was fun. We haven't had too many close games."

Memo to the Trojans: The whole "lack-of-urgency-because-we-know-how-good-we-are" act might work in basketball, where all that matters is the postseason, but in football, one game taken too lightly may ruin your whole season. So far at least, this USC team seems very similar to Miami's 2002 defending champion squad, which was every bit as talented as its predecessor but seemed to sleepwalk through most games (remember Rutgers?), and eventually, it caught up to them.

I want my TCU-USF

Heidi came to Conference USA on Saturday night. South Florida fans watching their team's game against TCU on Channel 28 in Tampa, as well as anyone around the country tuned in on satellite, missed the double-overtime finish -- USF went ahead on 45-38 on a touchdown and extra point, then TCU scored a touchdown but botched the extra-point snap and lost -- when the broadcast's provider, ESPN Regional Television, lost its feed before the final drive. According to a USF spokesman, ERT had only purchased four hours of satellite time for the telecast, and when it went to extend it, found out that particular transponder was already booked. Then a miscommunication about the coordinates for a new transponder prevented them from switching on time. Sadly, on one of the most uneventful college football Saturdays in recent memory, this may have been the most exciting finish in the country -- but no one saw it.

Move over, Rudy

You can already tell that Tim "Pops" Frisby, South Carolina's 39-year-old walk-on receiver, is about to become a national celebrity. Frisby, a retired 20-year Army vet with six children who served in Desert Storm and Kosovo, saw his first action late in Saturday's game at Troy, and you just know he's about to become the feel-good story of the year. In fact, somewhere in Hollywood right now, they're already throwing out the Friday Night Lights trailer and recording a new one. From the director who brought you Radio comes the heartwarming tale of a man ...

Five wide

1. How is it possible that Miami's offense is this dreadful? Don't be fooled by the 38-13 score of Thursday night's win over Houston -- the 'Canes looked awful, particularly in the passing game. QB Brock Berlin threw for just 99 yards and was sacked five times -- including a particularly puzzling play in which he ran right into a Cougars defender. He also had his share of wild overthrows, and his fumble with 1:07 left in the first half allowed Houston to drive for a touchdown to cut the deficit to 24-10.

"A fifth-year senior quarterback cannot give the opponent a touchdown before the half,'' 'Canes coach Larry Coker said. "That's totally a foolish play we can't have.''

The fact that Coker has yet to pull the plug on the underachieving Berlin shows either a total lack of confidence in backups Derrick Crudup and Kyle Wright, or an admission that it's not all Berlin's fault. Let's face it, this is the least imposing group of Miami receivers since its mid-'90s probation days, and the once-dominant offensive line has been rather ordinary the past couple of years.

2. Oklahoma running back Adrian Peterson has the bigger numbers, but the leading freshman-of-the-year candidate right now is Tennessee QB Erik Ainge. A week after orchestrating the Vols' 16-point fourth quarter in a win over Florida, the Oregon native entered Saturday's game against Louisiana Tech on the third series and proceeded to engineer five touchdown drives in a 42-17 victory. He finished 10-of-15 for 198 yards, three TDs and no INTs.

"Ainge is seeing the field really, really well," Tennessee offensive coordinator Randy Sanders said. "It surprises me how well he's seeing it right now. He's seeing things I don't see."

Of course, the real test is still to come. Saturday, Ainge faces his toughest defense to date when Auburn comes calling, then the next week he'll play his first road game -- at No. 3 Georgia.

3. What's wrong with Justin Vincent? Surely, you remember the LSU running back who, as a freshman last year, steamrolled Georgia for 201 yards in the SEC championship game, then lit up Oklahoma for several long runs in the Sugar Bowl. He was listed as a preseason Heisman candidate this summer. Through four games, however, the sophomore has been mostly a non-factor, gaining just 223 yards on 49 carries. Meanwhile classmate Alley Broussard has emerged as the Tigers' more prominent runner the past two games, gaining 84 yards on 10 carries against Auburn and scoring LSU's first three touchdowns against Mississippi State.

"He gives us a dimension out there that nobody else does in terms of his physical presence and toughness," coach Nick Saban said of Broussard. "We're happy to have it."

Here's a theory: LSU's offensive line isn't opening the kind of holes it did last year, and the more physical Broussard is better equipped than the speedy Vincent to make something out of nothing.

4. Fans of once-mighty BYU have to be frustrated right now, what with the Cougars coming off back-to-back losing seasons and off to a 1-3 start, but you know what? This team is much better than its record. Not only have two of their losses come to No. 1 USC and an obviously much-improved Stanford team, but they beat Notre Dame and on Friday, came within a missed field goal of ending Boise State's 20-game home winning streak. Most encouraging for BYU has to be the return of its high-powered passing attack after two years in remission. In the second half Friday, QB John Beck repeatedly burned the Broncos with the long ball, finishing 20-of-35 for 390 yards. Receiver Todd Watkins, a juco transfer who had a 69-yard touchdown the week before against USC, hauled in a 79-yarder against Boise and may be the best deep threat in the country. The Cougars could realistically finish as high as third in the Mountain West.

5. If N.C. State had this year's defense last year, when it still had QB Philip Rivers, the Wolfpack might have won the national title. A week after holding Ohio State to 137 yards in a 22-14 loss, State sacked Virginia Tech QB Bryan Randall 10 times and held the Hokies to just 192 yards but, due to its own anemic offense, needed a last-second field goal miss to hold on for the 17-16 win. Last year, N.C. State was dominant offensively behind Rivers but porous defensively. This year, it's the opposite, with neither QB Jay Davis or Marcus Stone producing much of anything, but the defense leading the country in yards allowed. Much of the credit for the D's improvement goes to new coordinator Reggie Herring, formerly of Clemson and the Houston Texans, who's brought in an aggressive system. But it's also a matter of young players developing. Defensive linemen Mario Williams, John McCargo and Lawson and linebacker Oliver Hoyte, all first-year starters last season, have blossomed into the stars they were projected to be as highly acclaimed recruits.

Stewart Mandel covers college sports for

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