Virginia Tech Tops Florida State For ACC Championship, 44-33

Despite the loss, EJ Manuel played quite well filling in for an injured Christian Ponder in the ACC Championship Game.

Virginia Tech beat Florida State 44-33 on a cold, wet track in Charlotte for the ACC Championship.  The 6-3 'Noles were simply overmatched against a 9-0 Hokie club.  Yes, Florida State was missing its NFL-prospect quarterback in Christian Ponder, who was scratched due to an elbow injury that simply refused to be drained for one more week.  Yes, Florida State was the victim of a ridiculous bounce giving Virginia Tech a pick-six.  Yes, FSU's safeties will feel really bad in film review when they see several blown coverages.  

But no, Florida State was not the better team in this game.  And the 'Noles might not have won even with its star quarterback and a few less mental mistakes on defense.  Florida State gave the best it could.  Virginia Tech gave its best.  But Tech's best included its star quarterback and the Hokies' best was better.  

Third-year sophomore EJ Manuel started in place of Ponder and played well, competing 23 of 31 passes for 288 yards with a TD and 2 INT.  Virginia Tech "stacked up everyone including the waterboy against the run and dared FSU to throw."

Some poor luck befell the young signalcaller when a ball was deflected right in front of the receiver.  The throw might have been a count late, but the diving deflection ending up in the hands of a Virginia Tech player who wasn't even looking was sheer bad luck.  The Hokies returned it for a touchdown and the early 7-3 lead.  

Florida State had drives of 53, 53, 68, 75, and 78 yards.  It was an excellent offensive effort against a good Tech defense, particularly without Ponder.  FSU finished with 5.8 yards-per-play, but managed only 59 plays with Virginia Tech's offense playing keepaway.  

While Manuel is likely to be the 'Noles' next star quarterback, Virginia Tech had its star in Tyrod Taylor.  On the biggest stage, he showed why he is the player of the year in the conference.  Tech amassed 6.3 yards-per-play on Florida State's defense.  The 'Noles tried blitzing.  They tried zone blitzing.  They tried a full rush.  They tried a contained rush.  Taylor and the Hokies had the answer every time.  Tyrod did a fantastic job to keep plays alive with his feet and then made difficult throws on the run to keep drives alive.  

There were series in which FSU's defense strung together a few good plays in a row.  But then FSU's much improved but nowhere near elite defense would make a mistake, Taylor would make a great play, or both.  And when FSU's defense made a mistake, Taylor seemingly capitalized every time.  Two huge coverage busts by Florida State's safeties turned into huge plays for Virginia Tech.  

But no scheme or coverage was going to fix a problem that has been evident since the second half of the NC State game:  the wall.  Florida State's defensive line, thin on experience and depth, didn't have anything left in the tank.  Sure, a run-only offense helped FSU to hide the problem, but tonight it was back in full force.  Florida State's defensive linemen looked like they were running in quicksand.  It should not have come as a surprise, but the Florida game may have warped the expectations of some observers, including my own to an extent.  Having had to play so many snaps for the first time ever due to the lack of depth and youth (A Senior, 4 Sophomores, 3 Freshmen), Florida State simply didn't have the horses.  Losing just one starter, gaining three from redshirts, and adding at least five mega-recruits along the defensive line, soon FSU will again send wave after wave of talented defensive linemen at opponents.  But tonight isn't next year.  Florida State could stop a good offense, but it wasn't stopping a very good offense clicking on all cylinders.  

At one point Virginia Tech was 13-of-15 on third downs.  It was the result of a very good offense facing an above-average defense with dead legs and very average safeties.  

Overall the game had its ups and downs for the conference.  The field conditions were embarrassing and players for both sides repeatedly slipped down, allowing for big plays.  Though the result of the game would not likely have been any different had it been played indoors or a warmer, sleet-free climate, the game failed to showcase the athletic talents of both teams to the fullest extent.  The game should offer the ability to showcase the absolute best attributes of the best teams.  Wouldn't Virginia Tech and Florida State offer an even more exciting game if it were played in something other than 30-degree weather on a wet field?

Coach Fisher said he was proud that the team continued to fight, and he was right.  The 'Noles didn't lay down.  Twice it looked like Virginia Tech was going to route the 'Noles, and twice FSU held and answered to keep the game within reach.  

Florida State was also not called for a single penalty.  The 'Noles were not sloppy and absent a few coverage busts, weren't disorganized.  Florida State looked like a team playing to the level of its young talent.  

Some will say FSU is ahead of schedule.  Some will say FSU is on schedule.  But that disagreement evidences just how far this Florida State team has come, as Paul Myerberg wrote before the game:

A very important note about Florida State in 2010: the Seminoles finished 6-2 in A.C.C. play. Why is that vital? Because Bobby Bowden - the great Bobby Bowden - never finished greater than 5-3 in conference action following the A.C.C.'s split into two divisions in 2005. If you know nothing else about F.S.U. in 2010, you know enough. There's more to know, of course. You need to know that Jimbo Fisher has fit like a glove; that Mark Stoops, the first-year defensive coordinator, has his group playing inspired football; that there are many, many young players due to play significant roles in 2011 and beyond; and that - and this is also vital - Florida State will only get better.

It's that the Seminoles have lived up to expectations that's important. This is a team - a program - that was nothing if not absolutely frustrating on a yearly basis from 2004-9. Those Bowden-led teams had the talent yet lacked a certain mental fortitude, the type of toughness that allows a team to, say, overcome back-to-back narrow losses in conference play to end the season on a three-game winning steak.

This is merely the first step, it seems: an Atlantic division title is nice, and there remains the chance that F.S.U. knocks off Virginia Tech to win the conference crown outright. Regardless of what happens on Saturday, it's clear that better days lie ahead: the roster is young, the coaching staff still new, and there's reason to believe 2011 will be even better than this fall.

Again, first things first. Win the Atlantic and play for the A.C.C. title. Mission accomplished in 2010. On Fisher's to-do list, it's merely the first of several tasks to come.

33 players logged significant snaps tonight on offense and defense.  Only five of the 33 are seniors.  The 'Noles have a shot at the top recruiting class in the entire country.  The loss will sting for some fans, but there is no denying that FSU is on a fast track to again ruling the conference.  

So round one goes to Virginia Tech.  A rematch is likely in the cards as both the 'Noles and Hokies will be overwhelming favorites to win their divisions again in 2011.

For now, Florida State will get three weeks of much needed rest before taking on an SEC program (Mississippi State or South Carolina) in the Chick-Fil-A (Peach) Bowl in Atlanta on December 31st.  

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