Work in Sports
In a sweet matchup of two potent teams, Florida State figures to win its second national title of the decade, but Virginia Tech won't go without a fight
Posted: Wednesday December 29, 1999 02:41 PM
By Ivan Maisel
For a snapshot comparison of the teams that will play for the national championship in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 4, focus on their quarterbacks. Florida State, playing in the title game for the third time in four seasons, is led by Chris Weinke, a 27-year-old portrait of unflappability. Weinke's six-year minor league baseball stint (he was a first baseman in the Toronto Blue Jays' organization) and three years with the Seminoles make him, in athletic terms, a ninth-year junior.
Upstart Virginia Tech, playing for its first national championship, is led by 19-year-old Michael Vick, who combined athleticism and poise to achieve beyond all expectations this season. "My redshirt freshman will be calmer than I will," Hokies coach Frank Beamer says of Vick. "I believe that. He just doesn't panic."
Using the quarterbacks as metaphors, however, only goes so far. The truth is, Florida State and Virginia Tech have more in common than their 11-0 records. They play intimidating defense. They employ aggressive kicking games. Anyone who thinks the Hokies are out of their league in this matchup needs to know that Virginia Tech is capable of beating the Seminoles. Whether the Hokies do so will depend largely on the answers to the following five questions.
Though Warrick caught 71 passes in only nine games, and though just one other Florida State receiver, senior Ron Dugans, caught more than 20, the fact is, 11 Seminoles caught touchdown passes. On the 48-yard drive to set up the winning 39-yard field goal at Clemson, Weinke completed four of five passes, none to Warrick. At Florida, Weinke threw to Marvin Minnis for the 27-yard, fourth-quarter touchdown that provided the 30-23 victory.
In each of eight games this season Florida State's receiving corps gained 100 yards or more after making catches. "They're going to make somebody miss. The second [defensive] guy has to be there," says Clemson coach Tommy Bowden, whose Tigers allowed his father Bobby's offense only two plays longer than 20 yards, a big reason Clemson lost just narrowly, 17-14. Yards after the catch will be especially hard to come by against the Virginia Tech secondary, which has excelled at breaking up passes or causing fumbles with slobberknocking hits.
Still, all of that gets Virginia Tech no better than a draw against the Seminoles' special-teamers, who blocked six kicks this season and haven't had a boot of their own blocked in 21 games. Kicker Sebastian Janikowski (SI, Dec. 20) is unparalleled as an offensive and defensive weapon. Referring to Janikowski's ability to produce touchbacks, Beamer says, "I don't think we want to work on our kickoff returns, do we?"
The offenses that gave Florida State the most trouble -- Georgia Tech's and Miami's -- featured mobile quarterbacks with accurate arms. Sound like anyone you know, Hokies fans? The Yellow Jackets' Joe Hamilton completed 22 of 25 passes for 387 yards and four scores in a gallant 41-35 losing effort. "If you look at the teams who have beaten Florida State recently," says Georgia Tech offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen, "they always make plays with the wide receiver." Tennessee's Peerless Price (four catches for 199 yards and one touchdown) in last January's Fiesta Bowl, North Carolina State's Torry Holt (nine for 135 and one touchdown) in the Wolfpack's 1998 upset of the Seminoles and Florida's Jacquez Green (seven for 145) in the 1997 regular-season finale can attest to that. They were the clutch receivers on the last teams to defeat Florida State.
This season Seminoles senior cornerback Mario Edwards got left behind like a lunch box more than once. He'll be tested in the Sugar Bowl by Virginia Tech sophomore Andre Davis, who averaged 27.5 yards per catch, the best among the top Division I-A receivers, and who has proved to be the ideal partner for Vick.
Vick led the nation in passing efficiency (180.4, a Division I-A freshman record) and finished third in the Heisman vote. "He throws the deep ball as well as anyone I've seen," says Virginia defensive coordinator Rick Lantz, who coached against both teams and believes the Hokies will win. "Vick gets the ball out there in catchable position." It's tempting to believe he's Tiger Woods in shoulder pads, but Bustle didn't let Vick stray from tightly scripted game plans. Vick averaged only nine completions and 15 attempts. He rarely threw over the middle, where coaches don't allow freshman quarterbacks to venture. "We ran more pass patterns against Florida than [the Hokies ran] in any three games," Amato says.
Both quarterbacks are winners. Vick is 10-0 as a starter. (He missed Virginia Tech's game against Alabama-Birmingham with an ankle injury.) Bobby Bowden says Weinke, who has won his last 20 starts, came of age this year at Clemson. "There were 86,000 people, and it's a loud place," Bowden says. "National TV. We're behind 14-3. How much worse could it be? He pulls it out, though." Weinke drove his teammates through the Warrick episode without letting them rubberneck. At Florida, when he threw an interception that the Gators' Bennie Alexander returned 43 yards to give Florida a 16-13 lead, Weinke didn't flinch. He led the Seminoles to a field goal and two touchdowns on three of their next four possessions. If there's a quarterback who can withstand the pressure Virginia Tech Lombardi Award winner Corey Moore will apply from defensive end, it's Weinke. "We're ready to play," Weinke says. "How many people get the opportunity to play for a national championship? Guys are focused even more than I've seen throughout the year."
Friedgen, one of Beamer's closest friends, can't help but think about Super Bowl XXIX, in which Friedgen was offensive coordinator for the surprising San Diego Chargers as they met the San Francisco 49ers. "I don't know how you prepare players for an atmosphere like that," he says. "San Francisco had been there as an annual event. The 49ers were ready to go to work. Our guys were in awe."
As many times as Florida State has been in this position, the Seminoles have never been here with a ninth-year junior. There's a reason coaches love experience. We'll see why on Jan. 4. Seminoles, 20-13 .
Issue date: December 27, 1999-January 3, 2000