He was the last player to leave the field, as if expecting another chance. USC junior defensive back Daylon McCutcheon paced from one side of the Los Angeles Coliseum to the other and then back again last Saturday night, letting his cardinal-and-gold helmet dangle from his right hand. "They thought they were going to come in here and blow us out," said McCutcheon. "We knew that wouldn't happen." He wheeled on his cleats and started back across the grass, trying to kill the frustration of a 14-7 loss to Florida State by walking it to death. Losing stinks, but in reaching for some small consolation, McCutcheon sent a message to the mighty: You want to stomp somebody in September? Play Akron. Otherwise, all bets are off.
Tennessee would understand, the Volunteers having just survived a wild UCLA comeback two hours earlier and 12 miles north at the Rose Bowl. Colorado and Notre Dame would understand, having barely escaped that afternoon against Colorado State and Georgia Tech, respectively. In a twisted way Florida would understand best of all. True, the Gators thrashed overmatched Central Michigan 82-6, but only after a season-opening 21-6 win the week before over solid Southern Mississippi. Preordained early-season massacres are slowly giving way to dangerous intersectional matches, prompted by television executives who smell putrid ratings for guaranteed blowouts and by athletic directors who fear empty seats. Florida State scheduled USC years ago, but their meeting typifies this sort of early-season contest. Wins are earned, not ensured.
This would have been a good year for Florida State to open with Duke, as it has in three of the last five seasons, with an average winning margin of six touchdowns. The Seminoles lost to Florida in last year's national championship game 52-20, then watched four players depart for the NFL, all of them first-rounders who started immediately. The baggage Florida State took west included a roster on which nearly half of the players were either true or redshirt freshmen; three new starters on the offensive line; a running back, Dee Feaster, who was replacing both the brilliant Warrick Dunn, one of the NFL first-rounders, and Rock Preston, who had been expected to succeed Dunn but who was declared academically ineligible last spring; and a series of arrests and disciplinary actions affecting nine other players.
"People have told me that we don't rebuild here anymore, now we reload," Florida State coach Bobby Bowden said in the week before the USC game, invoking language first applied to the Texas powerhouses of the 1960s. "I don't know if I believe that. But if we win this game, then I'll believe it."
Among the many issues facing Florida State, the off-field missteps are what can most quickly damage the Seminoles, in both image and performance. Some of the incidents have been minor (a bounced check for, according to Florida State officials, $17; underage drinking) and others serious (burglary, aggravated battery). Rare is the college football team that doesn't have players with rap sheets, but in light of the notorious Foot Locker shopping spree of 1993, Florida State is under more scrutiny than many programs, and Bowden, a head coach for 32 years, finds himself watched as never before. "There was a time when a coach might have been able to sweep something under the rug, keep it within the team," Bowden says. "That's not possible anymore." He drifts toward an Osbornesque paternal affection when discussing his accused players. "I can't tell you how angry his parents are," he says of senior defensive tackle Julian Pittman, who has been charged with burglary and fraudulent use of a credit card.
Florida State's off-field troubles have thinned a roster already in transition. Pittman and backup safety Sean Key (charged with aggravated battery stemming from a fraternity party fight) missed the USC game and could miss others while awaiting court dates. Starting cornerback Mario Edwards and backup strong safety Robert Hammond were dismissed from the team; Edwards was charged with petty theft, and Hammond was charged with possession of marijuana. "People keep asking how all our suspensions affect me," says Daryl Bush, the Seminoles' saxophone-playing, poetry-writing, straight-A, grad-student linebacker. "Starters missing, that's how it affects me."
Nursing these various pains, Florida State found itself entwined with a USC team that went just 6-6 a year ago and saved coach John Robinson's job only with a season-ending victory over Notre Dame. But the Trojans have enough talent in the right places—chiefly rush linebacker Chris Claiborne and corners McCutcheon and Brian Kelly—to bedevil a team in search of an early-season rhythm, like Florida State. Seminoles quarterback Thad Busby tried repeatedly to throw deep over Kelly, without success. Kelly kept up a stream of chatter. "How do you like that? How do you like that?" he chirped at Florida State wideout Peter Warrick after blanketing him on one streak pattern. "That made me mad, but those corners were everything they were supposed to be," said Warrick. USC held Florida State to seven points in nearly 50 minutes of play, and the score was still 7-7 early in the fourth quarter.
But while the Seminoles were stymied on offense, their defense was sensational. At times it hardly seemed to matter that All-America defensive ends Peter Boulware and Reinard Wilson, who terrorized opponents a year ago, are now in the NFL. Florida State gave up only 184 yards in total offense, including 25 yards on the ground. USC's only touchdown came after Florida State freshman punter Keith Cottrell dropped a snap and had his desperation kick blocked, giving the Trojans possession at the Seminoles' 30. At the core of Florida State's domination were end Andre Wadsworth and linebacker Sam Cowart.
Wadsworth was the nosetackle a year ago, doing the weekly dirty work, occupying multiple blockers while Boulware and Wilson piled up the sacks. Now it's his turn, and in his first game at his new spot, he twice sacked quarterback John Fox. "You've got to be tough as nails inside," said Wadsworth, "but it's an honor to play outside."
If off-field embarrassments are part of Florida State's story, so is the fact that Wadsworth, like Bush, has already earned his undergraduate degree and is taking 15 hours of graduate courses in sports management. What's more, this youngest of seven children born to Lylith and Andrew Wadsworth in St. Croix, Virgin Islands, not only secured tickets for 27 friends and family members (his father is from Los Angeles), but also joined them all for dinner on Friday at the team's hotel in Newport Beach.