Freshman running back Leon Washington steps in and carries the load for Florida State.
By JASON SCHNEIDER
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 1, 2002
TALLAHASSEE -- Since the loss of Greg Jones to a torn anterior cruciate ligament and the long injury saga of Nick Maddox's ankle, fans from around Florida had been wondering who would step up and prove to be Florida State's man in the backfield.
Everyone meet Leon Washington.
And what an introduction it was.
Though it took a few games for the freshman from Jacksonville to make his hellos, he couldn't have picked a better time to do it.
Against rival Florida, the smallest back in the FSU stable, at 5 feet 9 and 180 pounds, ran 26 times for 134 yards and one touchdown. Those aren't Willis McGahee or Larry Johnson numbers, but it gave FSU enough of a ground presence to keep the Gators defense honest in the Seminoles' 31-14 win.
"We were watching Colorado beat Nebraska (Friday), yesterday, and they played a freshman tailback who gained 137 yards," coach Bobby Bowden said. "Before the game I told my offensive line about that. I said 'Wouldn't it be great if we got Leon Washington 137 yards.' Someone said that he got 135. That is probably where we won the game."
The first time Washington touched the ball he ripped off a 16-yard run on third and 10. Working out of the shotgun, quarterback Chris Rix gave the ball to Washington, who slipped through the line and into the secondary for a first down.
"They got that play on us last year and it felt great to get it on them," Rix said. "Leon had a great run and a great game. I'm really proud of him."
The Seminoles managed a tying field goal on the drive, but on FSU's third possession Washington firmly hoisted FSU onto his shoulders.
Washington carried the ball five times for 45 yards on the 52-yard scoring drive, breaking off chunks of yards before taking the ball 7 yards for the go-ahead score.
Washington stepped up when it counted in the fourth quarter, rushing for 65 yards on 11 carries.
After Rex Grossman hit O.J. Smalls for a TD and converted the two-point conversion to pull Florida to within 10, the Seminoles could sense momentum was starting to shift.
In comes Washington to convert a third and 3 at FSU's 27 to continue a drive that would end with Rix hitting Anquan Boldin in the end zone to seal the game.
"I can't believe I started this game," Washington said. "The coaches had faith in me and gave me a shot."
Coming into this season Washington only hoped to get on the field on special teams. With Jones, Maddox and a recruiting class that included running backs from both the East and West high school all-star teams, Washington was lost among Lorenzo Booker and Thomas Clayton.
"The people in Florida knew about him," Bowden said. "I was speaking to some boosters and I told them we got the starting tailback from the West team and the East team in the All-American game, but I said that one guy (Washington) might be better than all of them."