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Defense powers 'Noles

FSU 21, GT 13: An 82-yard interception return for a TD helps put an ACC title within reach.

By BRIAN LANDMAN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published November 10, 2002

[Times photo: Carrie Pratt]
Georgia Tech's Marvious Hester prevents FSU's Talman Gardner from catching a pass during the third quarter.
ATLANTA -- Florida State cornerback Stanford Samuels has talked a good game all season.

He played one Saturday against Georgia Tech.

Samuels, dejected after he was suspended for last week's game, then demoted to second string, returned an interception for a touchdown and sealed a 21-13 victory with an interception in the end zone in the final seconds before 43,719 at Bobby Dodd Stadium.

"It was very important for me to show that I can make the plays that I've been making in practice since I've been here," said Samuels, who was suspended for an undisclosed team violation.

"I told Stanford before the ballgame, 'Son, you've got to play two ballgames tonight because you didn't play last week,' " defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews said. "It looks like he took us up on it."

Thanks to Samuels and an improving defense, the No.17 Seminoles (7-3 overall, 6-0) remain on course to regain the ACC title and the Bowl Championship Series berth that goes with it.

Maligned for most of the past two seasons, the defense shut out Georgia Tech in the second half. Last week, it shut out Wake Forest after halftime.

"Folks, we ain't done that in a couple of years," said coach Bobby Bowden, who celebrated his 73rd birthday Friday. "I think the biggest difference in our football team lately has been our defense is now beginning to hold people down again."

Just as telling is the Seminoles came up with critical plays, their signature for many years with Deion Sanders, Derrick Brooks, Peter Boulware and Corey Simon.

That's something this year's bunch had not done.

But in addition to Samuels' two interceptions, linebacker Michael Boulware had an interception and reserve cornerback Bryant McFadden pushed receiver Will Glover out of bounds inches shy of the first-down marker to give FSU the ball on downs late in the game. "Everybody's been saying we need to get back to that old Florida State style of defense," Samuels said. "They made plays. Bottom line. When they needed plays, they made plays. The past two weeks, that's what we've been doing."

They needed to on this day.

The Yellow Jackets (6-4, 3-4) were brimming with confidence after back-to-back victories. They beat Virginia, ending the Cavaliers' six-game win streak, and followed with an upset of then 9-0 North Carolina State at Raleigh last week.

How? Simple. Quarterback A.J. Suggs, a former starter at Tennessee, had been flawless. And defensively, the Yellow Jackets allowed a total of 110 yards rushing.

"Their defense is pretty stinking good, and we simply couldn't bust it open," Bowden said.

Adrian McPherson, in his second start, completed just 8 of 24 passes for 139 yards against a blitz-happy defense. Tailback Nick Maddox, taking over for injured Greg Jones, also found limited space at the outset.

With the Seminoles struggling to move the ball, the Yellow Jackets usually took possession on a significantly shortened field. Suggs capped a 35-yard drive with a 20-yard touchdown to Levon Thomas midway through the first quarter.

Thomas beat Samuels on a post pattern.

"I just got out of the doghouse as far as the suspension, and I put myself right back in the doghouse with the touchdown pass," Samuels said. "It was a mental thing."

Tech appeared ready to add to the lead when Samuels picked off a pass intended for Jonathan Smith and weaved his way 82 yards for his first touchdown.

"It was a slant. I only saw one coverage," Suggs said. "They disguised it well, and the guy was just sitting in the hole."

A few moments later, the Seminoles offense showed some life. McPherson hit speedster Craphonso Thorpe in stride for a 72-yard touchdown, FSU's longest play of the year. But Georgia Tech cut it to 14-13 by halftime on 39- and 28-yard field goals by Luke Manget, the school's all-time leading scorer (313 points) and third on the ACC list behind FSU kickers Scott Bentley (326) and Sebastian Janikowski (324).

McPherson found Anquan Boldin on a crossing route and, thanks to key blocks by receiver Talman Gardner and tailback Leon Washington, turned a short gainer into a 32-yard touchdown late in the third.

From there, Maddox began finding room to run to help milk the clock. He finished with 122 yards. The defense and Samuels did the rest. His fourth career interception came on a first and goal at the FSU 9 with 22 seconds left.

"The guy just dropped out to the inside," Georgia Tech coach Chan Gailey said.

Samuels walked off the field and thumped his chest, signifying his heart and desire.

On this day, he also had game.

"He's been dogged all week," FSU defensive tackle Darnell Dockett said. "People have been down on him, but he came up huge. That's the way he's capable of playing, and he showed everybody."

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