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Gator Bowl: All-around redemption

Oft-maligned QB Chris Rix goes out on top, the ground game kicks into high gear and FSU ends a mini-slump in bowl games.

By BRIAN LANDMAN
Published January 2, 2005


JACKSONVILLE - After he took a knee to run out the clock, quarterback Chris Rix hoisted the ball skyward, wheeled around toward screaming Florida State fans and hurled the ball into the stands.

"I thought, "Will I get penalized for this? No,' " he said with a sly smile. "It just felt good."

With that gesture, the game was over. The Seminoles ended a two-bowl losing streak with a 30-18 win against West Virginia in Saturday's Gator Bowl at Alltel Stadium, one keyed largely by the running of Leon Washington, the MVP with 195 yards, and Lorenzo Booker, who added 101 yards.

With that throw, the Rix era was over. Fittingly enough, the game perfectly summed up his up-and-down turbulent time as the Seminoles starting quarterback.

"Chris played kind of like his career has gone," coach Bobby Bowden said. "Lot of potential. He's going to make something happen, but you're just not sure which team he's going to make it happen for."

He shook off a left rib injury, taking a cortisone shot for the pain at halftime, to lead the Seminoles to 10 third-quarter points that featured a masterful touchdown drive (16 plays, 90 yards and 7:16).

On that drive, Rix completed 7-of-9 for 63 yards, hitting five receivers and culminating with a 14-yard scoring pass to senior receiver Craphonso Thorpe for a 23-15 lead. "I'd been trying to get my hands on a couple different deep balls and just couldn't get to them," said Thorpe, who outjumped cornerback Dee McCann on the fade route to haul in just his second touchdown of the season. "That catch was real big for me."

We've seen that kind of drive before. We just hadn't seen it recently.

"That has been missing all year," Bowden said. "We finally got it, and of course the season is over now. But that's when the game was decided."

Well, not quite. West Virginia (8-4) answered with a field goal, then Rix and Washington orchestrated another impressive drive (seven plays, 83 yards) that fullback James Coleman finished off with a 1-yard plunge.

"I'm about as satisfied as I can get," Rix said. "The last thing I'm thinking about is statistics. It's usually the first thing I'm thinking about; how did I do? But the biggest thing is I know we had a W and that's huge for coach and the rest of the coaching staff with all the rumors going around (about a shakeup). We needed a win for my teammates as well to set the tone for next year and next year's team. That's really all I care about I'm very satisfied that we won the game against a great football team."

For the record: He was 9-of-14 for 103 yards after halftime to finish 16-of-31 for 157 yards. But he spoiled the second-half showing with, what else, an interception in the end zone late in the fourth quarter.

We've seen that kind of play before.

We saw it a lot in the first half.

Rix threw one interception West Virginia turned into a touchdown, a 36-yard catch and run by senior running back Kay-Jay Harris, the former Tampa Bay Tech star. Rix also fumbled twice, losing one at his 30 after a 12-yard run by trying to take on a defender and not sliding after he had the first down. He re-injured his rib on that play.

Bowden didn't consider pulling him then, but admitted "it wouldn't have taken much more to think about that move." He had lost his job twice to Wyatt Sexton this season before reclaiming it for the bowl.

"When he plays, you just have to say, "Look. He's going to give them one. He's going to give you two,' " Bowden said.

The Seminoles (9-3) owed their tenuous 13-12 halftime lead to the ferocity of Washington, who had a 69-yard touchdown run on the game's second play, and the generosity of West Virginia.

Adam "Pacman" Jones, the Big East special teams player of the year, fumbled the kickoff after Washington's run, setting up a short field goal by former Jesuit star Xavier Beitia. The Mountaineers then missed two extra points, one by Brad Cooper and one by Andy Good, failed on a fake field goal from the FSU 10 and lost another scoring chance when Harris fumbled at the FSU 14.

"I told the team I thought they prepared well and had a good focus," West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez said. "But we made some mistakes and when you make mistakes against good teams, they'll cost you."

On the second play of the third quarter, FSU junior linebacker A.J. Nicholson deflected a Rasheed Marshall pass with his outstretched left hand, turned and made a diving interception at the West Virginia 44. That gave Rix the chance to show his other side.

We've seen that before.

We saw that one last time Saturday.

"It said something about his character as a champion and a winner," Thorpe said. "A lot of people had him down before the game saying they don't think he should be in. But he felt like and we felt like he could get the job done. Everybody was behind him and he led us to a victory."