Posted: Tuesday January 3, 2006 4:02AM; Updated: Tuesday January 3, 2006 5:32PM
Marquee Matchup: Orange Bowl
No. 3 Penn St. (10-1) vs. No. 22 Florida St. (8-4)
Jan. 3, 8 p.m. (ABC)
Dolphins Stadium (75,000)
Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.
SI.com's B.J. Schecter analyzes the BCS showdown between the Nittany Lions and Seminoles.
Setting the Stage
Penn State's return to prominence was one of the biggest stories of the year, and the Nittany Lions were one second away from being undefeated. The "Joe Must Go" cries have faded, and the program appears to be on solid ground. On the other side, it was a rocky year for Florida State, which started out 5-0, looked horrible during a three-game losing streak and finally got things together with an upset of Virginia Tech in the first ACC championship game. This game will feature a pair of outstanding defenses and the all-time winningest coaches in Division I-A (Joe Paterno and Bobby Bowden), who are also 1-2 in all-time bowl victories.
Breaking down Penn State
Senior QB Michael Robinson is the motor that runs Penn State's high-powered offense.
Brian Bahr/Getty Images
After being widely criticized for being too conservative, Paterno loosened up the reins on PSU's offense and it flourished, thanks to a tough senior quarterback and a trio of freshmen playmakers. Penn State averaged 424.3 yards and 35.3 points this season and, for the first time in years, possessed a big-play threat on every down. The heart of the team is QB Michael Robinson, who threw for 2,097 yards and 16 TDs, rushed for 785 yards and 11 scores and could often be seen barreling downfield and flattening opposing defenders. Junior running back Tony Hunt (1,047 yards, 6 TDs) gives the Lions the consistent rushing threat they lacked in previous years, while Deon Butler (687 yards, 9 TDs) and Jordan Norwood (312 yards) are top-notch receivers and Justin King has big-play ability at wideout and in the secondary. Freshman Derrick Williams was Mr. Excitement in Penn State's first seven games, but broke his left arm in a loss to Michigan. He missed the team's final four games and though he has been practicing with the team in Florida, Paterno says it's unlikely Williams will play. However, if he can go, he'll give the Nittany Lions a huge lift.
Penn State's one constant over the past few years was its defense and the '05 unit was one of the nation's best. The Nittany Lions were ranked 11th nationally in scoring D (16.5 points per game) and produced 38 sacks and 24 turnovers (15 interceptions, 9 fumbles). Tom Bradley's troops are aggressive and fly to the ball and nobody does it better than Butkus Award-winning LB Paul Posluszny (111 tackles, 11 tackles for loss) and DE Tamba Hali (62 tackles, 17 tackles for loss, 11 sacks). Add linebacker Dan Connor (69), tackles Scott Paxon and Jay Alford, who each have nine tackles for a loss, and a stellar secondary -- safeties Chris Harrell and Calvin Lowry and corners Anwar Phillips and Alan Zemaitis -- and the Lions have the tools to battle with anyone.
Breaking down Florida State
RB Leon Washington missed two games earlier in the season with an ankle injury.
Doug Benc/Getty Images
The big question facing the Seminoles is, Which team will show up? The one that looked lost in a 34-7 loss to Florida, or the one that upset Virginia Tech? There's no doubt that FSU has talent, and freshman quarterback Drew Weatherford (2,950 yards, 17 TDs) needs just 105 yards to break Philip Rivers' ACC freshman passing mark. Weatherford still makes freshman mistakes, however, and tends to force things when pressured. At 6-6, freshman wideout Greg Carr (593 yards, 9 TDs) is a big target and a home-run threat. However, he was slowed by injuries in the Seminoles' final four games. Florida State has been inconsistent on the ground, partially because the line has been decimated by injuries and partially because backs Leon Washington and Lorenzo Booker have been inconsistent (Washington did miss two games with an ankle injury). FSU must run the ball effectively to win, a tall task against Penn State.
The saving grace for Florida State this season has been its defense, which produced 41 sacks and 115 tackles for loss. But the Seminoles took a huge hit on Thursday when their best defensive player, senior linebacker A.J. Nicholson, was suspended after a 19-year-old woman accused him of sexual assault. Nicholson, who was immediately sent home by the team, has started every game for the past two years and led FSU with 100 tackles this season. Fully compensating for Nicholson's loss will be impossible, but look for hard-hitting linebacker Ernie Sims to make his mark. The secondary, led by free safety Pat Watkins (10 career picks), is solid and has produced 16 interceptions. FSU is talented enough to hold off Penn State for a while, but the Seminoles must get some help from the offense.
Paterno versus Bowden is a good storyline, but this is a mismatch. Penn State has been terrific all season, while Florida State has been wildly inconsistent and has lacked spark and creativity on offense (where have we heard that before?). The Seminoles have the talent to stick with the Nittany Lions, but Penn State will pull away in the second half and prove that it's the third-best team in the nation and a potential national title contender next season.