Facing Auburn Pressure, Winston Turtles, Then Wins Game
He couldn't carry his Heisman Trophy onto the field Monday night, but Jameis Winston's helmet gave him away.
The 6-foot-4 All-American quarterback's headgear is decorated — or littered, depending on your view — with Tomahawk helmet stickers.
Yet when Dee Ford and Auburn's defensive line swarmed around that same helmet, Winston finally looked like a 20-year-old two years removed from high school who never has played a close college game.
Nick Marshall, he of one 300-yard passing game this year, looked like the better quarterback through three quarters.
Luckily for Florida State, the final BCS game lasted 60 minutes, leaving room for a favorite to finally sneak a win. With a clean pocket for much of the fourth, Winston led a game-winning drive, throwing a gorgeous alley-oop to 6-foot-5 Kelvin Benjamin with 13 seconds left for a touchdown, winning 34-31.
Right now, you're probably seeing the headlines everywhere: Winston Takes College Football By Storm In First Season. Famous Jameis One-Ups Manziel, Winning Heisman AND National Title. Florida State: "If We're Gonna Do It, We Do It Big."
Heisman Trophy winner overcomes 21-3 deficit, goes 6-of-7 for 77 yards and a TD on game-winning drive, they'll say.
The proceedings in Pasadena, Calif., didn't stroll forward with nearly such neatness.
An Auburn player appeared to injure his leg on the kickoff return with 4:31 left in the game, flopping to the ground directly in front of Seminoles returner Levonte Whitfield, who went 100 yards. Instead of being forced to drive the field for a touchdown with less than five minutes left in the national championship, Winston inherited a lead from the sideline and looked to cheer his defense to victory.
Instead, Auburn regained the lead, albeit with 1:19 left, and Winston embarked on the drive that everyone will remember.
It's corny coach speak, but there is something to be said for perseverance.
"I said, 'Guys, we didn't come here for no reason. This is ours, man.'" Winston recounted on ESPN. "My team got on my back and we just went the whole way, man."
Said coach Jimbo Fisher, also on ESPN: "This was the best football he's played because he struggled for three quarters. But great players understand great moments."
But get this straight: Winston did not win the game, at least not by himself. He certainly did not carry FSU on his back, completing 6-of-15 for 62 yards in the first half and finishing with 237 yards and a meager 6.8 yards per attempt. He also lost a fumble in the second quarter that gave Auburn a short field and led to an 18-point deficit.
The defense that held Auburn to a field goal for most of the second half won it. The special teams that returned a kick for a touchdown won it. P.J. Williams won it with his interception of Marshall. The offensive line won it with much better blocking late. FSU's skill players won it with some terrific plays on the last drive.
I'm no Bill Barnwell, but it seemed like a combination of factors worked against Winston in this game.
1) Auburn's defensive line played a heck of a game, deploying twists and stunts, timely blitzes and buzzing around Winston for the better part of three quarters.
2) Florida State's heralded offensive line, led by Rimington Trophy winner Bryan Stork and first-team All-ACC selections Cameron Erving and Tre' Jackson, got beat far too often. Even Peyton Manning and Tom Brady struggle when defenses get enough pressure.
3) Winston didn't get rid of the ball quick enough or read coverages well.
Florida State won the final BCS national championship with its superior athletes and more balanced overall performance. It nearly lost because the Tigers defensive front beat the Seminoles superstar on too many plays.
And in the fourth quarter, FSU went no-huddle, and Auburn couldn't continue to move and shuffle pre-snap to confuse Winston, and he was able to read the defense and pick on Auburn's physically overmatched corners.
Auburn did score 31 after three first-half touchdowns and punched home a touchdown drive late. (The Tigers' most impressive drive of the game may have been the 13-play, nearly seven-minute field goal drive earlier in the fourth, which made Chris B. Brown of Grantland.com look like an oracle with his "sequencing" explanation.) Still, the FSU defense did a decent job and probably enough to win.
Let's take a look at four plays that illustrate the struggles Winston and Florida State's offense experienced, particularly in the first three quarters, when Auburn registered four sacks, and two in the fourth that show how the game changed.
Struggles For Three Quarters
• Facing third-and-7 from the Auburn 24, already down 21-3 with the first half salting away, Ford curls free in front of Winston's face. Already jittery, the quarterback immediately tucks the ball and runs, gaining 21 yards to the Tigers 3-yard line and setting up a touchdown. Winston should be glad Ford ran past, though he probably could've kept his eyes downfield and thrown for a touchdown.
• Early in the third quarter, Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson dialed up a Cover Zero blitz. The Tigers managed to disguise the scheme enough that Winston didn't recognize an uncovered Benjamin on the left flank of the formation. Auburn got good 1-on-1 coverage out of its corner, forcing a FSU receiver to the right sideline. Winston feathered a pass that way before pressure arrived, but the defender had squeezed the window too tight.
• With 9:18 left in the third quarter, Winston took off for an eight-yard gain on first-and-10, but the quarterback missed a wide open receiver downfield and another player on a wheel route uncovered up the sideline for what would've been a huge gainer.
• Later in the same drive, the Seminoles lined up four wide and ran to curl routes on the left side, one at short-intermediate and one at deep-intermediate. Both receivers were open, but Winston missed them with in inaccurate throw, appearing hurried by the pressure.
• Florida State committed five false starts, three by offensive linemen in the first half. Auburn may have been imitating the cadence, but whatever the reason, it added to their struggles.
Fourth Quarter Difference
• When Winston hit Chad Abram for an 11-yard touchdown (fourth quarter, 10:55 left), Auburn rushed four and the Seminoles created a near textbook clean pocket.
• Winston and the offense incurred a delay of game penalty on third-and-3 from the 5-yard line with 21 seconds left. FSU had a timeout left. I don't know how much blame falls on Fisher for not getting the play call in fast enough, but regardless, that can't happen. The Seminoles were fortunate to convert third-and-8 due to a pass interference penalty.
Winston is a freshman. He wasn't used to the speed of this game and looked to the sideline with wide eyes early, befuddled by the Auburn defense. He missed some pre-snap reads and dropped his eyes too quickly on other throws.
The offensive line also did not play settled in the first half and bears responsibility for the four sacks in the first three quarters, numerous pressures and the bevy of false start penalties.
The second-half play calling helped both, as the team mixed in the run and short passes well and pushed tempo with a no-huddle that helped eliminate Auburn's movement up front and by proxy the source of some of Winston's confusion.
But credit Winston for staying engaged. He didn't throw an interception and avoided the critical mistake long enough for his defense and offensive line to put him in a better position, and then capitalized.
It was one of Winston's worst performances of the year, but Auburn's defense was well prepared and played a good game. Still, Winston relied on the talent around him late in the game, leading a touchdown drive in the national championship in his first college season.
That's special, even if the storybook narrative doesn't apply.