Florida State quarterback Christian Ponder realizes he has a threshold to pass. He has yet to throw for 300 yards in a game. Heck, the Seminoles haven't had a starting quarterback reach that number since former Land O'Lakes standout Drew Weatherford threw for 354 in a win at Boston College on Nov. 3, 2007. "We definitely have to open up the passing game," said Ponder, a redshirt sophomore whose career high is 254 yards in an Oct. 16 win against North Carolina State. He has six passing touchdowns against Division I-A competition this season.
Today wouldn't be a bad time to start. The Seminoles (8-4) meet Wisconsin (7-5) in the Champs Sports Bowl, and most of their top offensive players are underclassmen looking to springboard into next year.
No coach wants a big statistical day from his quarterback in a loss. FSU coach Bobby Bowden said a coach is always looking for that breakout game from him. And though 300 yards may be an arbitrary standard, a byproduct of the fantasy football and video game crazes, to reach that number, a quarterback has to be an efficient and accurate passer.
"When you look at our successful teams," former FSU quarterback Peter Tom Willis said of the program's years as a perennial top 5 team, "we were always good at throwing and catching."
Case in point: Willis had seven games of more than 300 yards during the 1989 season, including 422 in a resounding 41-17 win against Nebraska in the Fiesta Bowl.
Offensive coordinator-quarterbacks coach Jimbo Fisher, however, said 300 is only a "magical" number depending on the kind of team a coach has, and his team this year has been most effective on the ground.
The Seminoles have run for 2,194 yards, an average of 182.8 yards per game (32nd in Division I-A); that is their highest average since 2002. But they've thrown for 2,230 yards, an average of 185.8 (87th), the lowest mark at FSU since 1984.
"He's been vital for us to move the football," Fisher said of Ponder. "His legs and his athleticism have provided us the stability not to have our young line exploited; you couldn't crowd the line because of his ability to run the option and run the football."
Case in point: Ponder rushed for 144 yards against Miami, highlighted by a 13-yard scramble on third and 11 that kept alive what turned out to be the game-sealing touchdown drive in the fourth quarter. He finished the season with 404 yards and four touchdowns on 110 carries.
"I like what I've seen," Bowden said.
"There was about a six-game stretch in there where he was the key factor," Fisher said, mentioning Ponder's play in key fourth-quarter drives against Miami, North Carolina State and Virginia Tech. "Sometimes, it's 'what have you done for me lately,' and two of his last three games (Boston College and Florida), he didn't play as well."
The Seminoles had two of their worst rushing performances in those games (73 and 102 yards, respectively), and they needed to produce in the passing game.
"I wish we would have progressed more in the passing game," Fisher said. "But I say that as a team."
That means the receivers need to run crisper routes, become stronger to separate from defenders and hang on to the ball when it comes their way. The line needs to pass-protect better. The backs and receivers need to block better.
As for Ponder, he realizes he sometimes threw off his back foot or locked onto a receiver or didn't throw the ball when he needed to, perhaps even before the receiver made his break. Those are common pitfalls for a new quarterback, but they should happen far less often as a player gains experience and confidence.
That should lead to bigger statistical days.
Like throwing for 300 yards.
"I think it is something I need," Ponder said. "It would give me and the rest of the receivers and the guys (on offense) a lot more confidence when you're able to put that many yards up. We've kind of struggled throughout the year on that. It's something we have to get right, and once it happens, a ton of things will open up."
Brian Landman can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3347.