Sept. 3, 2011
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- With all the national attention and title-contending postseason prognostication that has been surrounding the program the past nine months, one might have expected Florida State to kick off its highly-hyped 2011 season with an eye-popping blowout of Louisiana-Monroe.
Instead, Saturday's 34-0 year-opening win against the Warhawks (0-1) was -- while still impressive -- more realistic for an FSU (1-0) team that is embracing the lofty expectations while understanding the process of positive progression.
The Seminoles didn't fill up the box score with gaudy offensive stats. They made some mistakes and missed on some plays that film study will certainly highlight and ideally rectify. But they showed flashes of what this team has the ability to do on a game-by-game basis -- both on offense and on defense.
"We were able to make plays in key moments in the game when we had to," FSU head coach Jimbo Fisher said. "Even when sometimes things weren't going well, all of a sudden they brought it back up and made a play. We have a lot to clean up and we have a lot to get better on but it was a good first ballgame."
Quarterback EJ Manuel's play not-so-coincidentally jibed with Fisher's assessment of the team as a whole. He missed on a couple of throws but made plays and exciting strides in his first game as the 'Noles' undisputed starter.
Manuel spread the ball around, finding nine different pass catchers while completing 22 of his 34 passes in 3 1/2 quarters of work. He finished the game with 252 yards passing, two touchdowns, one interception and 22 yards rushing.
"I thought he was a little nervous in the beginning," Fisher said. "The wind caught one of them balls early. He had a wind at his back ... it's actually easier to throw into the wind. I think nerves but then he got in a groove a played really well. He really made some big third-down throws on third and long."
"There was no mental mistakes as far as not knowing what to do," Fisher added about Manuel. "He had a poor decision on the interception. [ULM] clouded the coverage and he saw it, he just thought he could stick it in there. He came right back over as soon as he did it and told me what they were in and what they were doing. He's got to learn from that but for most part I thought he had a solid day."
Rodney Smith helped that by leading the charge as Manuel's favorite target. The rising junior hauled in a game-best six catches for 78 yards. Bert Reed and Greg Dent both caught touchdown passes and Jarred Haggins became a go-to target with five catches of his own.
True freshman Rashad Greene added a 28-yard touchdown in the game, too, but it came from the arm of another quarterback. Not only was the catch his first reception as a Seminole, but it was on the first pass ever thrown by backup quarterback Clint Trickett, who had spelled Manuel halfway through the final frame.
Playing against a ULM defense that loaded the box to slow down the running back, FSU split carries almost equally between Chris Thompson, Ty Jones and Devonta Freeman. The true freshman Freeman scored the only rushing score of the day on a one-yard plunge.
The Seminoles registered 372 total yards on the day (280 passing and 92 rushing).
Defensively the Seminoles were nearly perfect, limiting ULM and its hurry-up, no-huddle offense to just 191 yards. The Warhawks didn't register over 100 yards in either running or passing (99 team rushing yards and 92 team receiving yards).
Middle linebacker Vince Williams had a team-high and career-best seven tackles in the shut out. Brandon Jenkins, Jeff Luc and Lamarcus Joyner had five tackles apiece as well. Joyner added an interception.
"We have been working on the up-tempo stuff," Williams said. "I think we did a good job of getting set and keeping everything in front of us all game."
It took until the team's third offensive possession of the day for Manuel to get locked in. He started by hitting Smith on a 16-yard completion and then found Kenny Shaw on a toe-dragging 17-yard catch that the reviewal booth confirmed was indeed a great snag.
A play later, the offensive line gave Manuel enough time to find Reed coming across the field for a nine-yard touchdown and the first FSU points of the new season.
"[The offensive line] did a great job," Reed said. "I was EJ's third read so he had time to sit back there and wait for me to get open."
Reed then helped set up another score halfway through the second quarter. The Seminoles' lone senior at wide receiver caught a 25-yard pass to move the chains to the ULM 39 yard-line. A few plays later, kicker Dustin Hopkins made his first field goal attempt of the year on a 24-yarder that pushed FSU's lead to 10-0.
While Reed sparked the first two scores, Joyner was the catalyst for the third. His interception in the final few minutes of the opening half gave FSU the ball back and enough time to generate some points.
Two double-digit yardage runs by Thompson put the Seminoles on the 50-yard line and Manuel then floated a beautiful deep pass into the outstretched arms of Dent for the touchdown. The 50-yard scoring bomb was Dent's first-career touchdown reception and put the 'Noles on top 17-0 heading into the halftime break.
"That felt good because I had to get the butterflies out," said Dent, who had dropped what would have likely been a short touchdown catch earlier in the quarter. "I came in for a second try and had to do better."
FSU began the second half a little bit quicker than it did to start the game. After an opening-drive three-and-out, Freeman entered the game for the first time in his young career and made an instant impact. First he caught an eight-yard pass on third down and then ran the ball six times for 24 yards.
His one-yard scoring dive concluded a 14-play, 66-yard touchdown drive that gave the Seminoles a 24-0 advantage.
The Seminoles would later add a 23-yard field goal by Hopkins and Trickett's memorable touchdown toss to Greene accounted for the final points.
FSU returns to Doak Campbell Stadium this Saturday to take on Charleston Southern. That contest will kick-off at 6 p.m. and will air live online at ESPN3.com.