Florida State 49 — Clemson 37
So, Florida State takes on Clemson. The Seminoles versus the Tigers. The biggest East Coast clash this season since two members of a Washington Foreign Policy Summit came to blows over the correct pronunication of longue durée. All kinds of portents in the air: Clemson had never beaten a top five team on the road, but they’d won five of the last seven match-ups with FSU. A lot of eyes on Sammy Watkins, after his return last week, and the fact that his first touch of the ball ended with a touchdown against Furman. Should someone have a word about managing expectations?
It appears to be a team-wide issue, as a minute and a half into the game, Deandre Hopkins caught a 60-yard bomb for a TD. This set the tone for a high scoring game, with Tajh Boyd and EJ Manuel leading their duelling offenses with notable flair. Clemson chose to bring a bag of tricks: one play involved the O-line standing practically still until an uber-screen pass was popped over their heads, another saw Chandler Catanzaro lining up for a kick which turned into a hasty shovel pass, and twice Sammy Watkins formed the hinge of a three-man, two-pass triangle. It worked the second time. I applauded both times, out of some deep atavistic rugby instinct that moving quick ball along the line is A Good And Natural Way To Behave. (Though on reflection I should have been disgusted at a blatant forward pass. Ah, who can fathom the motions of the rugby heart…)
This determined deployment of the bizarre and flashy did sometimes trip up the Clemson offense. During the early stages of what would no doubt have been something frighteningly clever, Cornellius Carradine landed Boyd on his backside – it’s unclear whether Carradine had read Boyd’s ultimate intentions, or had simply been so far behind him that he hadn’t realized Boyd was clearly up to something tricky and he should probably stand off and wait to stop it. Either way, ouch. The Clemson defensive secondary also seemed, at least in the early stages, a bit keen to assert will over matter – when the matter in question was slippery grass, and the will was quick cuts in response to a receiver, quite a few yards after catch were given up.
A less blatant kind of thinking (to more final result) was evident in the running of Chris Thompson, Lonnie Pryor and EJ Manuel. There’s something very exciting about the combination of speed and patience which these three showed at different times. I’m not even sure whether one can display patience whilst sprinting at practically full stretch, but Thompson in particular had a definite air of it. The stutter-step was laid upon unfortunate defenders to great effect, but it was the less obvious mastery of timing which really made him stand out.
Patience being a virtue and all, this is probably a good time to have a quick think about the moral aspect of spectatorship. Or at least the way we talk about it. I noticed online a couple of comments about how Chris Thompson is both a gifted player and a really “good kid”. It always bothers me that college players are called “kids”: I know it’s partly just a quirk of terminology which could be used about any student at university. But unlike other students, football players are the focus of enormous weekly performances, and are called upon to exemplify moral qualities both in the way they play and their behaviour between games.
When Chris Thompson is called a “good kid”, it emphasizes the way so many spectators see him – as talented but not yet formed, in need of guidance and training, even in need of advice. That might make sense, because he’s a young adult in college who is (he hopes) in the final stages of developing into a professional sportsman. But when such a small percentage of college players have a substantial professional career, can we actually talk about them as if they’re embryo NFL stars? And isn’t there something odd (if not downright queasy) about sports discussions which assume that the very best and most skilled athletes are still to be patronised by any spectator because they’re not quite grown up? The structure of the college game provides terrific narratives because it squashes the entire career of a virtuoso into a handful of years. They pass from their fresh unproven hopes, to their doughty veteran mid-career, to their sepia-tinted last-game late style, within a matter of seasons. It speeds up the stories which can usually only be told about other sporting stars over decades, and ensures there are always a new set of high-drama narratives because someone’s always just arriving or about to bow out with his laurels. College football is like three hundred Bildungsromans being written at the same time about three hundred mayflys.
If we take college football seriously as a sport (I’m assuming we can agree on that one…?) then we might want to think about how discussions of the sport frame its finest players as unformed, naive, to be moulded by the older men around them. A lot of the adjectives – positive as well as negative – seem to bestow judgement from a great height and rob the players of their agency. They’re more often called “gifted” than “creative”, they “make good decisions” from the options available to them, they’re good “kids” rather than admirable people. There’s a risk that calling Chris Thompson a good kid marks him out not as an intelligent and capable person, but as someone who responds correctly and appreciatively to the forces being exerted on him. Watching any sport has an ethical element (especially given the recent spate of articles about the NFL), and college football goes out of its way to stress the ethical and cultural background to each game. So we ought to take that ethical background at its word, and think about who gets called “kid”, and what that implies about the audience’s relationship to what they’re watching.
Clemson kept their nose ahead by a seven or ten points for more than half the game, and it looked as if they were going to pull off the upset, until FSU’s defense got the measure of them partway through the third quarter. Forcing three scoreless drives from the Tigers gave the Seminoles room for their offense to find a rhythm. Four FSU scoring drives in a row resulted. James Wilder Jr. featured, with a 35 yard storm up the middle, dragging half the secondary with him, and two sequential carries ending in a touchdown. He showed terrific flair in reading the defense and stringing blocks together to produce his seam. (Block is something else Chris Thompson can and will do, incidentally. Not to go on.) After that it was all the maroon way. No, that isn’t the eleventh volume of Proust, it means FSU did pretty well what they felt like until the whistle brought them up 49-37. The last six points of Clemson’s score were something of a consolation prize, as Brandon Ford caught his second touchdown pass of the night, and took it over almost apologetically. An onside kick with two minutes and ten was one too predictable trick too many, and it didn’t go the Tigers’ way. Then just inside the last minute EJ Manuel made a 28 yard dash, presumably just to make sure no-one thought he’d forgotten how in the last quarter of an hour. Eighty-eight thousand, two hundred and thirty-one fans went home, some significant minority of them less happy than the rest, and Florida State is one step closer to a conference title.