ORLANDO, Fla. - Bobby Bowden glimpsed into the past, and it made the 79-year-old coach excited about Florida State’s future.
Bowden saw a big-play offense and a hard-hitting, opportunistic defense in the Seminoles’ 42-13 win over Wisconsin at the Champs Sports Bowl on Saturday.
“It looked like the old Florida State out there,” Bowden said. “Not that we’re there, but we looked like we used to.”
Florida State (9-4) finished with more than eight wins for the first time since 2004. Nine victories was once a given for Bowden’s Seminoles, who hit that mark in 17 of 18 seasons before tailing off in recent seasons.
Many key players on this team will be back next season, so there’s reason to believe Florida State is headed for even better results.
Derek Nicholson and Dekoda Watson returned fumbles for touchdowns, Christian Ponder threw two TD passes and the Seminoles got a game MVP performance from punter Graham Gano.
Watson and Ponder are among the underclassmen who will be back for the Seminoles next season.
Nicholson, a senior, had two fumble recoveries, including one he returned 75 yards for a first-quarter score. Gano averaged 48.2 yards on five and had three downed inside the Badgers 5 to earn game MVP.
“Once we got our feet on the ground, we were almost unstoppable out there,” said Ponder, who was 18-for-31 for 199 yards. “We got into a groove and every one was making plays.”
P.J. Hill ran for 140 yards on 15 carries for the Badgers (7-6), but quarterback Dustin Sherer completed only four of nine for 55 yards through the first three quarters. His fumble early in the fourth quarter was returned 51 yards for a score by Watson to put FSU up 35-6.
“I was disappointed in everything out there,” Sherer said. “I didn’t make the plays we needed. They made it tough on us early with the punts, but we really kind of shot ourselves in the foot and allowed them to do that.”
It was an ugly finish to a disappointing season for Wisconsin, which was ranked as high as No. 8 early and was expected to contend in the Big Ten.
Hill broke runs of 46 and 43 yards, both setting up Philip Welch field goals. But he fumbled deep in FSU territory late in the third quarter and Nicholson recovered to end the threat.
Florida State, playing in its NCAA-leading 27th-straight bowl game, improved Bowden’s career record to 21-10-1.
“I plan on coming back next year,” said Bowden, who has 382 career victories, one behind Penn State’s Joe Paterno for the major college record. “This makes it exciting to coach.”
Antone Smith scored on a 6-yard run off right tackle to put the Seminoles up 21-6 in the third quarter and make the power running Badgers have to go to the pass to catch up.
Gano, the Lou Groza Award winner as the nation’s best kicker, placed three first-quarter punts inside the 4, including two at the
1. Wisconsin managed drives of 56 and 51 yards after two of those coffin corner punts, but had to settle field goals of 31 and 41 yards by Philip Welch.
“What if he didn’t kick them out?” Bowden said. “Those would have been touchdowns. This guy (Gano) kept us in it.”
The Seminoles couldn’t turn that field position edge into points, though, and when Sherer hit Garrett Graham on a slant for a gain of 43, the game seemed to turn.
But on second-and-9 at the Seminoles 19, Sherer took a one-step drop and tried to hit Hill on a quick screen. The ball, clearly a lateral, was deflected by end Neffey Moffett and picked up by Nicholson, who returned it for a score, high-stepping the last 20 yards. FSU led 7-0 with about 12 minutes left in the first half.
“I kind of saw it coming,” Nicholson said. “I went for the interception, but when I missed it, I wasn’t sure what happened, so I just picked up the ball and started running with it. When we scored, it changed things a little bit.”
The Seminoles have a tradition of designating games “Sod Games.” If they win, they take a chunk of the turf back to Tallahassee, plant it and put a plaque over it.
Gano cut a swatch of sod out from the 3-yard line, near where two of his punts went out.
“Somebody told me to go to there to cut it out, because that 1-yard line attracted the most attention,” Gano said. “It was hard to cut that out.”
Instead of running out the clock deep in their own end in the first half trailing 7-3, Wisconsin passed. FSU forced a punt, taking over at the Badgers’ 47 with 40 seconds left. Ponder hit Louis Givens on a swing pass for 26 yards and then found Greg Carr on a fade route in the right corner for a one-handed 15-yard TD catch with 7 seconds left that put the Seminoles up 14-3 at halftime.
Wisconsin appeared to have regained the momentum after Welch’s second field goal when they recovered a Bert Reed fumble at the Seminoles’ 28. Replays showed Reed’s knee was down before he lost the ball and the call was changed.
“That was a huge play,” Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said. “I didn’t think they would overturn it.”
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