The 2010 football season is now officially in the books. Auburn beat Oregon in the championship game giving them an undefeated season and national title bragging rights. For Florida State, the goals weren’t nearly as lofty as they were for the two title contenders. However, after 2009’s misery, Florida State fans were hoping for improvement under first year head coach Jimbo Fisher. A short list of pre-season goals/accomplishments that would signal an end to the lost decade included an 8-4 regular season, an Atlantic Division title, and a vastly improved defense. In this piece, we’ll reflect on the 2010 season, a collection of thoughts about what happened, and what it all means going forward.
Let’s briefly get started where the year ended for FSU. The date is December 31, 2010. College football fans across America are tuned in to watch Florida State take on Steve Spurrier and the South Carolina Gamecocks. Star freshman RB Marcus Lattimore proves his talent early with a beautiful catch and run in the Gamecocks first drive. On 3rd and 4 of the same drive with the Gamecocks threatening to score, Lattimore floats to the right from his running back position, catches a pass, and starts running for the first down. Cornerback Greg Reid, standing on his own 10 yard line in a shallow cover 2, diagnoses the play, runs toward Lattimore, and his legs explode like coiled springs hurling his torso and right shoulder into the oncoming player's chest. Lattimore’s body is immediately sent in the opposite direction as the ball is fiercely separated from the star running back. The SEC’s second leading rusher has fumbled for the first time in his career and has been knocked out of the game. Tone--set. Reid credits new defensive coordinator Mark Stoops and his scheme for putting him in the right spot to make the play. The Florida State defense is playing Stoop’s system with confidence resulting in a very fast, very physical defensive effort. This is what FSU fans have been waiting to see. The defensive players trust the new coaches and what they are being taught. However, there were lessons, sometimes very painful lessons to be learned by FSU’s young defense.
After the jump, a ridiculously long look at the season past (go ahead, kill your morning).
Back to the beginning of the season and Florida State opens with the decimation of outmatched Samford with a final score of 59-6. Fans were excited to see the defense was actually capable of forcing a team to 3 and out. Fans also were confident FSU would win Fisher’s first game as head coach. But after all the upheaval after the previous season and the memory of Jacksonville State, there was still a level of concern. Not that FSU would lose, but how would they win? How would they look? How would they handle their first game with new coaches? They passed with flying colors. We also learned early in the season that refs don’t like freshman CB Lamarcus Joyner laying the wood to players a full 100 pounds bigger than he is.
The next game was a road trip to Norman to take on the Oklahoma Sooners. After seeing the improvement in the Samford game, ‘Nole fans were excited to see a close, hard fought game with a very good Sooner team. Instead what we witnessed was the aforementioned "very painful lesson." It was a 47-17 drubbing in which the defense and the offense struggled. According to Mark Stoops it was a turning point in the season for his defensive players. Stoops explained the impact the lopsided loss had on the team saying, "I think it opened up their eyes and they said, all right let's just submit." Stoops said the goal after that game was to, "Get better at something everyday."
Get better they did. Even though FSU was now slated to play lesser talented teams, it would have been easy for FSU’s defense to lose confidence in the coaches and their message, and easy for the offense to think they would have to score every possession much like last year. However the players responded by turning the sound technique and preparation the coaches were feeding them into greatly improved football on the field. FSU started a five game winning streak the next weekend against a BYU team that had lost a lot of talent from the previous year. Still, after the shellacking in Norman, many were nervous about how the entire team would respond in front of the home crowd. That nervousness was quelled as FSU racked up a whopping 8 sacks in a 34-10 win.
It was much of the same for the ‘Noles in the next two games. FSU squared off against two outmatched opponents in Wake Forest and Virginia. FSU recorded the first shutout of the Mark Stoops era with a 31-0 win over Wake Forest. Although Virginia fans were hopeful for what could be a special season by Cavalier standards, FSU quickly brought them back to reality with a 34-14 win.
The maturation of the defense 3 games into the winning streak was evident. The added bulk on the defensive front was paying dividends. What FSU fans were seeing was a team playing as a whole again. The FSU offense fed off of the play of the defense and vice versa. The running game was going strong even though the offense struggled at times with pass protection and injuries on the offensive line. Talented, but young, wide receivers were trying their best to get a feel for the game, learn their assignments, and contribute meaningful minutes. On the horizon loomed a hated and talented rival. A team that fought admirably against Ohio State and earned a tough road win in Death Valley against Clemson. How would FSU respond to the next big test on the calendar?
HOW?! By shoving a very large dose of Jimbo Fisher’s process right down the collective gullets of the then ranked #13 Miami Hurricanes. It was a rout in every sense of the word. FSU players hit harder, ran harder, and played harder than their rivals. Fisher and his staff had FSU better prepared and better coached for the game and it showed. Christian Ponder was efficient throwing for 178 yards and two TDs on just 21 attempts. Jermaine Thomas would run for two TD’s and catch another in the first half. Mike Harris would cause a momentum swinging fumble that was returned inside the one yard line by safety Nick Moody. Chris Thompson would add the final exclamation point to the rout with a 90 yard TD run after having his previous long run called back for a penalty. By the end of the game Miami quit, but it was the play of FSU that made them quit. Final FSU 45, UM 17.
The last game of FSU’s 5 game winning streak would come against Boston College. The FSU offense would struggle against a vintage BC defense; a defense that is well coached and extremely disciplined (the same BC defense that held the vaunted Nevada offense to 13 points in their bowl game). FSU had to overcome 4 turnovers to earn the victory. Bert Reid took a reverse 42 yards to the house with time winding down in the 4th quarter to give the ‘Noles the come from behind win. Christian Ponder would throw 3 interceptions that game, not all of them his fault. Worse, he would suffer an injury, tearing his fascia from the muscle at the elbow. The injury would hinder Ponder for the rest of the year. In the end, FSU was able to rely on the defense to stifle a bad BC offense and the FSU offense was able to do just enough to earn the victory. Just 7 games into the season, FSU was bowl eligible. Final FSU 24, BC 19.
Heart breaking. Those are the two words best used to describe the next two games for Florida State. A young Seminole defensive front was wearing down. For many of them, even at this point in the season, it was the most snaps they had taken in their college careers. It also didn’t help that the quarterbacks for NC State and North Carolina were the best the defense faced since Landry Jones in Oklahoma.
NC State was able to methodically and efficiently move the ball the second half erasing a deficit while not having to punt once. Russell Wilson was able to nickel and dime FSU’s defense into submission. It was death by a thousand tiny cuts. Third downs were converted one after the other with clutch throws or shifty runs from the talented signal caller. However FSU’s offense kept them in the game and had a chance at a game winning drive when catastrophe struck. Inside the 10 yard line, the clock winding down, Ty Jones inadvertently ran into Christian Ponder causing a fumble. NC State recovered the ball ending FSU’s chance to win the Thursday night game. Final FSU 24, NC State 28.
The next week FSU tried to make adjustments on defense to keep North Carolina from having the same kind of success. However the plan backfired, as they tried to eliminate the short throws and running game, UNC was able to make several long costly plays in the passing game. It was a defensive performance reminiscent of the 2009 season. But along with a special teams miscue by UNC and a decent offensive effort, FSU had a chance to win the game. Kicker Dustin Hopkins, after missing one 4th quarter field goal, was put in position to kick the game winner. He missed and, for the second game in a row, FSU lost in heart breaking fashion.It would be FSU's only home loss of the season. Final FSU 35, UNC 37.
Christian Ponder, battling through injury, performed admirably in the two defeats. In the two losses the senior combined for 460 yards and 4 touchdowns with no interceptions. Two sophomore receivers, Willie Haulstead and Rodney Smith, were starting to realize their potential on the field. However, now with two ACC losses, FSU would need to end the losing streak against ACC rival Clemson, if they wanted a shot to win the division. FSU fans found out late there was another hurdle to climb in the pivotal matchup. Christian Ponder’s injury had flared up and he would not be able to participate.
Redemption. Not all kickers get the chance to redeem themselves for missing an opportunity to bail out their team and run off the field a hero. And if they do, there is a long wait before they get that chance. This was not to be the case for Dustin Hopkins. Just one week after the loss to North Carolina, the golden shoed sophomore kicker would send Doak Campbell in to a frenzy with a 55 yard game winning field goal. Sophomore EJ Manuel, standing in for the injured Ponder, would struggle early against a very stout Clemson defense. Some credit for FSU staying in this game while at times being outplayed, will go to the not-so-loved Clemson coaching staff. This game was ugly in so many ways, but with only seconds left, the Florida State special teams along with a clutch throw from EJ Manuel gave Hopkins his chance for redemption. When asked by random fans if Hopkins would make it, this fan, ever the pessimistic prophet of doom answered simply, "Not a chance. He’s got the leg, but he’ll shank it." The crowd fell silent as Hopkins lined up the kick. Toe met leather and Hopkins sent a cannon shot ignited at ground level hurling towards the uprights. The cheering started with the band as they could see the ball was properly aligned. The jubilation spread quickly as the entire stadium saw the thunder shot sail through the uprights. The historic 55 yard kick would have been good from at least another 10 yards out.
The last ACC game of the year came against Maryland. A hyped up crowd and a talented freshman QB for the Terps would give FSU all they could handle. FSU's defense had returned to the bend-but-don't-break game plan, giving up yards but making points difficult to come by. Again this was a must win conference game to keep hopes of winning the division alive. Christian Ponder was back in action for the 'Noles. The 'Nole offense struggled to move the ball this game and Maryland had a chance to tie the contest late in the 4th quarter. However, driving deep into FSU territory, freshman Terp QB Danny O'Brien would throw a costly interception into the hands of Nick Moody. Moody would return the interception 96 yards to seal the game 30-16.
Six long years of frustration. Six straight years of watching the despised reptiles from the swamp beat the 'Noles. The 2008 and 2009 contests can hardly be considered contests. FSU would lose those two game by a combined score of 82-25. The 2008 game was especially difficult for fans. For this fan, the 2008 game was possibly the worst game witnessed in person...soaked to the bone from hard rain, barely watching by the end of the 2nd quarter. More of a gaze. A thousand yard stare. Watching #15 from the swamp bathed in bloody crimson from sludgy wet endzone paint. He looked like a predator that had just got finished dining on an unrecognizable, wrecked piece of prey. All hope was gone and gone early. The Seminoles would fair no better in 2009 in the Swamp. Urban Meyer would take his foot off the throat of a program in desperate need of change by halftime.
Back to 2010 and FSU has a chance to put a stop to UF's domination. Christian Ponder is healthy enough to play an entire game against UF for the first time. But how would FSU's young defensive line, showing signs of fatigue late in season, handle the UF attack? How would a banged up Christian Ponder do against a stout UF defense? The answers came and came early for the 'Nole faithful. With the unorganized UF offense struggling to create a spark, Urban Meyer called for a fake punt only to have it stopped a yard and half short. On the very next play, Christian Ponder made the team from down south pay with a long TD strike to Rodney Smith giving the 'Noles a 17-7 lead. There would be many more highlights throughout the night. FSU would win the game 31-7 snapping UF's 6 game winning streak and earning the 'Noles their first state title since 1999.
This game against UF will be the game that I remember Christian Ponder for the most. The play mentioned above happened right in front of this Nole fan. Seeing Ponder's reaction, running down the field after the TD to congratulate his receiver and teammates, will be forever cemented in the part of my brain reserved for great Seminole memories. It will stay there, right beside 'Nole greats like Weinke, Ward, Warrick and Dunn. Ponder helped to send out the senior class with a win in front of an electric crowd that couldn't have been more appreciative. The 'Noles had killed the gators for themselves just as much as they had for the fans.
After the emotional win, Florida State players gathered around TVs in the locker room. They watched NC State's luck run out against the Maryland Terps. The Terp upset made the 'Noles the division winner and gave them a chance to play for an ACC crown and BCS game for the first time since 2005. How much would the 'Noles have left in the tank for a very good Virginia Tech team? As it turns out, not very much. Christian Ponder would again miss a game with the elbow injury. And again fatigue hampered the Seminole's defensive effort. EJ Manuel played well in relief, showing off his potential and talent but it wasn't enough to stop the hemorrhaging of a tired 'Nole defense. Tyrod Taylor had a phenomenal night under center and made all the clutch throws and scampers to lead the Hokies to a 44-33 victory in the ACC Championship game.
And we're back to December 31, 2010. Senior linebacker Kendall Smith picks up the fumble caused by Greg Reid and races down field into South Carolina territory helping to set up a field goal for the 'Noles. Unfortunately Lattimore would not be the only casualty of the game. In the first quarter Christian Ponder took some vicious shots himself resulting in him being pulled from the game with a concussion. Again the 'Noles turned to EJ Manuel and again he performed well. He ran the offense effectively while running back Chris Thompson earned offensive MVP honors rushing for 147 yards against an excellent South Carolina front. The rest the Seminoles got between the ACC championship game and the Chick-fil-A bowl was exactly what the Seminole defensive front needed to return to form. On the night the 'Nole defense would recover 5 turnovers, 2 of them caused by bowl defensive MVP Greg Reid. It was a special game for Reid, playing in front of his father for the first time since he was a freshman in high school. A promising new start for a family and a once proud program.
It is safe to say that the preseason goals were met and in some cases surpassed. An 8-4 regular season? Check. Atlantic Division title? Check. An improved defense? Check. The 'Noles notched a 10 win season for the first time since 2003 after going 7-6 in 2009. A 10 win season that has 'Nole fans and the media wondering, is FSU 'back?' I don't think it is for the media to arbitrarily label the Florida State football team 'back.' It isn't for the fans to scream from the rooftops, "WE'RE BACK!!!!" It is up to the players, the coaches, and the program to continue what was started in 2010. To continue a renewed dedication to putting well coached, talented players on the field. If FSU is successful in doing so, then it will certainly serve notice to the college football world that FSU has the leadership, structure, and commitment to win that is indicative of elite college football teams...again.
Thanks for taking a trip through 2010 with me. Feel free to share your favorite memories of the year and what the season meant to you. Thanks Tomahawk Nation for an amazing 2010.