Florida State coach Bobby Bowden was sitting in the locker room after his team's 35-28 victory at Clemson last Saturday, one white sock stuffed in the sneaker under his chair and the other dangling precariously from his left foot. His Seminoles, led by spectacular sophomore flanker Peter Warrick (eight catches, 249 yards, two touchdown receptions and a third score on a 90-yard punt return) and an opportunistic defense, had just given him his 200th win at Florida State, but Bowden was fretting about one area of his team's performance. "Our running game? It's awful," he said, his shirt soaked with sweat and his face still Hush with success. "We're going to have to look at it this week and figure out what's wrong."
Like Bowden's feet, the Seminoles' offense seems to be only half dressed this season. After amassing 31 yards rushing against the Tigers, Florida State is averaging a paltry 72.6 yards on the ground, way down from last season's 178.2. The passing game, by contrast, is averaging 356.3 yards. "It's frustrating," says junior tailback Dee Feaster, who is trying to fill the shoes of Warrick Dunn, now with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. "But with the passing game working so well, why change?"
Indeed, the Seminoles (3-0) have good reason not to change a formula that has produced victories over Southern Cal, Maryland and Clemson. Offensive coordinator Mark Richt has been content to let quarterback Thad Busby air out the ball, punishing opponents for putting seven or eight defenders on the line to stop the run. With dazzling performers like Warrick and fellow wideout E.G. Green on the offense, as well as with a big-play defense, Florida State isn't without firepower.
However, Bowden knows the Seminoles will have to run the ball against the better teams on their schedule, such as North Carolina and Florida. He has tried simplifying formations and reducing the variety of rushing plays to cut down on missed blocking assignments, but improvement has been slow. The line, with three new starters, can't seem to open holes. Take away Busby's 16 yards of scrambling against Clemson, and Florida State's backs accounted for just 15 yards on 12 carries.
The Seminoles aren't panicking. With a week off before facing Miami, they have time to work on the running game. "We know people are going to start saying, 'They can't run the ball,' " senior center Kevin Long says. "They're going to start challenging us. We've got to be ready, so we can make them pay."
Penn State Deserves Better
Florida's 33-20 demolition of Tennessee and subsequent return to No. 1 in the AP Top 25 poll demonstrates three givens about college football: Defense is paramount; a good running game helps; and the voters, of whom I am one, have the collective attention span of a kindergarten class.
Penn State, which was voted No. 1 in the first four polls of the year and fell to No. 2 on Sunday (18 points behind Florida), did nothing last week to diminish its standing. The Nittany Lions performed as a top-ranked team should, dismantling Louisville 57-21. Through three games against admittedly meager competition, Penn State has yet to reveal a flaw, save for coach Joe Paterno's refusal to run up the score. The Lions pulled their starters after taking a 34-3 lead in three quarters against Pittsburgh, a 42-10 lead in three quarters against Temple and a 50-14 advantage at the half against Louisville.
Paterno's stance against running up the score played a role in Penn State's failure to win the 1994 national championship. That year a beaten Indiana scored two late touchdowns to make the final score a respectable 34-28, and the voters jumped Nebraska over the Nittany Lions and into the No. 1 spot. The Cornhuskers never relinquished their advantage. After this year's game against Pittsburgh, which coincided with Florida's 82-6 wipeout of Central Michigan, Penn State's lead in the poll shrank from 73 points to 30. Paterno dismissed the vote totals that week. "I owe it to everybody on the squad to try to get them in a game," he said. "If that ends up hurting us some, that hurts us some. There's nothing I can do about the irrationality of other people."
Florida coach Steve Spurrier's penchant for running up the score is not news, and it helped put the Gators in position to overtake Penn State. But as impressive as Florida was in defeating Tennessee, the Volunteers revealed a weakness or two in their conquerors. The inexperience of quarterback Doug Johnson showed in the second half, when he completed 3 of 11 passes for 76 yards. Johnson will be tested when the Gators play before hostile crowds on consecutive Saturdays next month at LSU and Auburn. Penn State's schedule ratchets up a few notches, too. On the day that the Gators go to Baton Rouge, Ohio State comes to Beaver Stadium. It will be the Nittany Lions' first true test. If they win, the Lions will have to trust that the voters will be as fickle then as they were last week.