PASADENA, Calif. -- If 2013 was the Year of Winston, well, 2014 might just be as well.
Quarterback Jameis Winston led Florida State on a game-winning, 80-yard touchdown drive in the final minute to guide the Seminoles to a 34-31 win against Auburn in the final BCS National Championship Game.But it didn’t come easy for the Heisman winner. Nothing did for the Seminoles all night.
Florida State had blown out every team it had played, but found itself down 21-3 in the second quarter. When Auburn scored to take a 7-3 lead, it was the first time the Seminoles trailed since Sept. 28 at Boston College -- a span of 538 minutes and 42 seconds. How could a team that won by at least 14 points in all 13 games be down by three scores?
Easy. Auburn blitzed Winston time and time again. The Tigers sacked the usually invincible quarterback a season-high four times en route to a 21-3 second quarter lead. Most weeks he was able to elude defenders, completing a nation-best 70 percent of his passes when opponents blitzed. Not this night, as the Seminoles faced their largest deficit of the season.
“I think this is the first time this year we got outcome oriented, in other words we were worrying about the scoreboard not just playing the next play, and I think you get in these environments, you have to go through that,” Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher said. “And that's part of learning as a young player, but then to be able to adjust on that day and still get back and be great, to me that's big time.”
Auburn had Winston rattled and knew it.
“He started holding the ball,” Auburn’s Dee Ford said. “He started second-guessing his decisions, and that's exactly what I knew -- at the end of the day, he's a freshman, and I think [Monday night] we kind of exposed that. Very early, I saw that he was a little hesitant.”
Then, when his team needed it most, Fisher reached into his bag of tricks and pulled out a fake punt. On fourth-and-4 from their own 40-yard line with less than five minutes remaining in the first half. If they don’t convert, it could’ve been another SEC dagger. The ones the conference has dished out time and time again in the BCS era. But Karlos Williams got the first down. FSU would score seven players later.
The No. 1 team in the country was alive and well, back to within two scores.
“We lost momentum in the game, it was 21-3,” Fisher said. “We weren't here just to show up and play well. And I thought that's what we had to do to gain the momentum of the game back, and it worked and we got it, went down, got the drive and then got back in the ballgame, and hopefully that's what changed the momentum of the game and got our confidence back.”
If you had been fortunate enough to hang with Florida State in the first half this season, the third quarter is where it would go all boa-constrictor on you -- especially of late -- outscoring its past six opponents 93-0 in the frame.
Monday night’s scoreboard only showed 3-0. Little did we know what was coming in the fourth and final quarter. But maybe we should’ve -- ya know, with Famous Jameis and all.
With 4:31 showing on the Rose Bowl clock, this still wasn’t Winston’s night. That honor belonged to Levonte Whitfield, who weaved his way 100 yards on a kickoff return to give the Noles their first lead since early in the first quarter at 27-24.
The football gods are funny, though. In the original Year of Winston, the quarterback was the story in all 13 of FSU’s games. Somehow, some way. So when Auburn came right back down the field and scored with 1:19 remaining, nearly every single one of the 94,208 in attendance were thinking the same thing -- the Tigers had left Winston too much time.
History was stacked against Winston and the Noles coming in, despite being top-ranked and undefeated. Heisman-winning quarterbacks were just 2-5 in the BCS title game and the SEC had won the past seven coaches’ trophies. The FSU offense, which looked like a shell of its Ferrari-like self, stumbled and bumbled its way through the first 58 minutes and 49 seconds.
And then, keys -- meet ignition.
With 1:11 on the clock, Winston took over at his own 20 trailing by four. Two completions to Rashad Greene. Another to Kenny Shaw. And yet one more to Devonta Freeman. FSU was at the Auburn 5 with a half minute to play. He’d finally sliced and diced the Auburn secondary like so many thought he would.
A pass interference call on Auburn’s Chris Davis with 20 seconds remaining put the ball at the Auburn 2. It was only a matter of when, not if, FSU would score.
That came on the next play. Winston found Kelvin Benjamin, his favorite target all season, over the middle to cap a career-defining drive. You see, this was what Winston had been missing from his resume. The 14-point comeback at Boston College came in the second quarter.
He didn’t have one of these. A final-minute comeback drive in front of millions on the sport’s biggest stage. Six completions on seven attempts for 77 yards, that’s all Winston did on that drive.
“I was ready,” Winston said. “I wanted to be in that situation because that's what great quarterbacks do. That's what the Tom Bradys, Peyton Mannings, Drew Brees, that's what they do. Any quarterback can go out there and perform when they're up 50-0 in the second quarter. That's what you're judged by, especially by your teammates. I'm pretty sure I got more respect from my teammates and other people on that last drive than I got the whole year.”
“When you can go back like the great ones do, and it's not my night but we've got a chance to win this ballgame, it's in the fourth quarter, I've got one or two touches left and you can take your team down the field and lead them to victory, that's what a great player is to me,” Fisher said of his quarterback.
Just like that, Florida State became only the third team in BCS Championship history to win when trailing at halftime. Jameis gave himself quite a gift on his 20th birthday as Florida State won its first championship since 2000.
Just like that, Famous Jameis had raised expectations for him and his Seminoles in 2014 from somewhere in the stratosphere to somewhere closer to the exosphere.
It’s still, very much, the Year of Winston.