TALLAHASSEE - Florida State safety Pat Watkins had a chance for an interception on North Carolina State's first play last week only to have the ball hit him in the face and bounce off his hands.
To say he was a bit upset was an understatement.
Not just for what it meant in that game, but in the game to finish the season as the leader in interceptions among FSU defensive backs. As a group, they decided last summer to hold a contest, which ensured plenty of good-natured needling and trash talking.
"We clowned on him pretty good," cornerback Bryant McFadden said.
"I was getting on him, telling him, "You almost had me,' " cornerback Antonio Cromartie added.
With two games left, Saturday's showdown against Florida and a bowl, Cromartie and Watkins are tied with four. Cornerback Leroy Smith is in third place with two.
Watkins said he and his teammates have known all along that he would be the eventual winner. He even joked that he has kept them in the race "because I like to let them think" they have a chance.
"Yeah, that's what he says," Smith said.
Beyond the jokes and jabs, the contest has helped them all.
"It's real fun, and we talk about what we did right or wrong," Watkins said. "We challenge ourselves to make plays."
"It has made us better because we're competing with each other every day to make big plays," Cromartie said. "We're all striving to be one of the best defenses and one of the best secondaries in the country."
The Seminoles are 39th in pass defense, allowing an average of 198.1 yards and just six passing touchdowns. They are fourth in total defense (260.0 yards).
"I've been very pleased," coach Bobby Bowden said of his team's secondary play. "But we'll get pressured and tested more this week than we've been all year. ... This quarterback (Chris Leak) here throws as good as anybody in the country."
Talk about a game within the game.
READY AND ABLE: If center David Castillo, who dislocated his right ring finger on the first play of the N.C. State game and missed most of the game, has trouble snapping the ball then Bowden will have no qualms about going to backup Brian Ross.
"Brian Ross is one of our best offensive blockers," Bowden said. "It was very evident in the game the other night. He had some excellent blocks. ... Gosh, I was happy with the with the way Brian Ross (played). You just couldn't say enough nice things about the way he played."
PLAN AHEAD: If his team can avoid a rash of injuries, Bowden prefers a schedule like the one he has ended up with, 11 games without a bye week. (FSU would have had an off week had the opener at Miami not been moved from Labor Day to Sept. 10.)
"You might be open when you don't even need it; you might have good momentum going and nobody's hurt (so), just keep playing," he said.
He wouldn't mind an open week if it meant not playing after Thanksgiving weekend. The Seminoles, after all, could find themselves - they hope - playing the first weekend of December every year in the ACC title game starting in 2005.
TOURNAMENT TIME: Star senior middle blocker Amanda Santos might be playing her finest volleyball now. She's second in the ACC in hitting percentage (.368) and sixth in blocks (1.31 a game).
"I'm giving everything I have for the team, especially this week," said Santos, the lone Seminole to earn All-ACC honors. "Eat. Sleep. Everything. All I have right now is volleyball and this tournament."
FSU enters the ACC Tournament winners of five of its last six matches to earn the No. 4 seed. FSU meets No. 5 North Carolina, a team it has beaten twice this season, in Friday's quarterfinals.
"She's doing great things," coach Todd Kress said. "She's doing it all for us."
But Santos is getting plenty of help, too, which is why she and her teammates believe they might be able to win the tournament title and the automatic NCAA Tournament berth that goes with it.
"We're really strong right now," Santos said. "We're on the same page now."
- Times staff writer Brian Landman covers Florida State. Reach him at 813 226-3347 or firstname.lastname@example.org