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Nov. 28, 2012
By Bill Hass
GREENSBORO, N.C. (theACC.com) – At the end of Saturday night’s Dr Pepper ACC Football Championship Game, players of the winning team grab oranges and eagerly chomp into them. And the sweet taste will eliminate any bitterness remaining from their regular-season finale to their biggest rival.
By now, the players and coaches at Florida State and Georgia Tech have moved on from last weekend and when the game begins at 8:02 p.m. at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, there’s only one thing that will matter – becoming the ACC champion and claiming a berth in the Discover Orange Bowl.
Tech quarterback Tevin Washington said it’s a matter of correcting mistakes and seizing the moment.
“(We) realize the opportunity ahead of us, that we've got a chance to play for the ACC Championship, and that's the No. 1 goal for us,” Washington said. “We've still got a lot to play for. You've got to always stay grounded in the sense of knowing that you've got another game to go play and come out the next week re-energized, re-focused and ready to play.”
His counterpart at quarterback, Florida State’s E.J. Manuel, keeps a sense of history in mind, pointing out that the Seminoles haven’t won an ACC title since 2005.
“I know me personally as a quarterback and a football player and just as a competitor, I want to get it out of my mouth as soon as I can,” he said. “I'm going to be ready for it, my teammates are going to be ready, and I think that's the biggest thing. You just want to move on, get that bad taste out of your mouth and get a W.”
The game will match two programs that haven’t played each other since 2009. The Seminoles were the preseason favorites to be in this game and backed it up with a 7-1 conference record, with a win over Clemson earning the Atlantic Division tiebreaker.
The Jackets have been a surprise. At mid-season they were 2-4 overall, 1-3 in ACC play and looking highly unlikely to represent the Coastal Division in this game.
But Tech won its last four conference games and, when Miami chose to self-sanction and not play a bowl game, the Jackets found themselves with a golden opportunity.
“That would be a great story to end the year and to make it to the Orange Bowl,” said senior runner Orwin Smith. “We've had a lot of adversity and we feel like our story is very, very inspirational, and we just need to keep going and finish it off.”
Smith, as the A-Back in Tech’s option offense, is a key component of the attack. Plays for him are designed for him to get to the outside and use his speed, whether it’s running or receiving. But he missed the Georgia game with an injury to his right ankle.
Early this week, Smith said his status for Saturday was “still to be determined. I think I will play, yeah, so we'll just see how it goes day by day.”
Preparing for Tech’s offense is a headache because teams usually only face it once a season, and the Seminoles haven’t had prepare for it in three years.
“Oh, it's a huge challenge,” said FSU coach Jimbo Fisher. “We have to have a lot of discipline, we have to have a lot of confidence in what we're doing. That's one of the advantages that Georgia Tech does have is that … one-week turnaround is extremely tough.”
Washington explained that what causes defenses difficulty is the number of variations the Jackets can run on any given play.
“It's not like we're lining up and we show them what we're going to do before the snap,” he said. “It's going one way or another and … when the when the ball is snapped you've got to make a decision on how you're going to defend it. I think that gives defenses challenges.”
The normally stout FSU defense surrendered 37 points and 244 yards rushing against Florida, which should give the Jackets thoughts they can run the ball.
“Everybody has to just play his assignment, do what they're supposed to do, and then we'll be successful,” said Bjoern Werner, FSU’s All-ACC defensive end. “When technique meets opportunity, you make plays.”
Tech might be able to concentrate a bit more on Werner because the Seminoles’ other All-ACC defensive end, Tank Carradine, injured a knee and is done for the season.
“You have to move on,” Werner said. “You can't think about it too much, and just (hope) somebody steps up.”
On paper, the Seminoles’ biggest advantage is its efficient, high-scoring offense against a porous Jacket defense. Tech head coach Paul Johnson was candid about the play of that unit.
“Well, we haven't played very well defensively,” he said. “There's no secret about that. The last game was probably as bad as we've played all year.
“We've played good in spurts. I think we've played a couple of halves decently in the last few games, but it's been a while since we really played a consistent, what I would call 60-minute game, on defense.”
At mid-season the Jackets made a change at defensive coordinator, dismissing Al Groh and putting Charles Kelly in charge. The results have been mixed, but the defense is playing freer and faster without thinking too much about its assignments.
“Coach Kelly has kept it very simple for us,” said linebacker Quayshawn Neely. “Just know the call and just play. That's all we're doing.”
Although the Seminoles should be a substantial favorite, they know better than to take this game for granted.
“It’s not a gimme game by any means,” said kicker Dustin Hopkins. “I hope none of our guys think that way, and I don't think we do. When you're playing for a championship, teams come out to play, regardless of games in the past. We'd be remiss if we came in lightly to this game.”
The Jackets can approach the game with a nothing-to-lose attitude, plus the motivation that not many observers expect them to win.
“This group and the coaches and the guys, we haven't had very many losing seasons,” Johnson said. “I think that it was a goal to try to finish the thing off, and that's where we are now. We need to try to finish it off.”
Several Seminoles have the experience of playing in this game before, when they lost to Virginia Tech in 2010. One of them was Manuel, who wants to write a different ending and come away with the sweet taste of oranges. And it’s not that complicated.
“It's simple,” he said. “It's football – you've got to take care of the ball, move the chains, get first downs, can't get a lot of three-and-outs and things like that and put your defense out there.
“That’s a big thing because I know those guys run the ball a lot, so time of possession is extremely important. So when we have opportunities, we need to score touchdowns and not just field goals.”
Bill Hass is a long-time observer of ACC sports. His career at the Greensboro News & Record spanned 36 years, from 1969 until his retirement in March 2006. He is now writing "Bill Hass on the ACC" for theACC.com. His weekly columns will keep fans plugged in to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
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