PASADENA, Calif. – Deep into the 14th game of their football season they were finally dipped in acid.
They came out garnet and gold.
Encased in crystal.
And that is why this particular Florida State team deserves its due as one of the best in recent college football history.
Down by 18 points in the second quarter, trailing in the second half for the first time, so befuddled that even its Jameis seemed aimless, the Seminoles gathered themselves and overtook Auburn, 34-31, to win the final BCS championship game.
Jameis Winston’s winning touchdown pass, to Kelvin Benjamin with 13 seconds left, pushed Florida State’s points total to 725, breaking Oklahoma’s all-time record.
It also answered the question that shrouded the Seminoles from the moment they landed here: If they stumble, can they rise?
“This is why it’s the best game he (Winston) has played,” Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said. “He struggled, but great players have great moments. If that’s not a great player, I don’t know what is.”
The Heisman Trophy winner missed 9 of 15 passes in the first half. He and the Seminoles failed to convert 10 of their first 12 third-down situations.
But Fisher prolonged a late second-quarter drive by calling a fake punt on fourth-and-4. It worked, with a lateral to Karlos Williams, and the Seminoles cut the lead to 21-10, and a breathtaking second half awaited.
“We were here to win this thing,” Fisher said. “We had to change the momentum. We knew we had the ball to start the second half.”
The upset was that Florida State had more breath left at the end. Gus Malzahn’s transformer offense sputtered through the third quarter, and the Seminoles’ top-ranked defense did not allow cataclysmic plays – not until Tre Mason broke two tackles on the way to the 37-yard run that put the Tigers up, 31-27.
There were 71 seconds left when Winston, armed with two timeouts, took over on his own 20-yard line. What happened next just proved, again, that college football games are just too long for defenses these days.
On his second play, Winston hit Rashad Green down the right sideline, which took the Seminoles from their own 28 to Auburn’s 23.
The inevitable was accelerated when Chris Davis, the hero of Nov. 30 against Alabama, committed pass interference on third-and-8, and then couldn’t reach up to disrupt the 6-foot-5 Benjamin on the 2-yard game-winner.
“When I stepped to the line of scrimmage I knew it would be a touchdown,” Winston said. “When you see K.B. in one-on-one coverage, it’s like a dream come true.”
Auburn defensive end Dee Ford, who successfully pressured Winston early, said he saw signs of youth from the redshirt freshman.
“He was hesitating a little bit, holding on to the ball too long,” Ford said. “I thought we had him rattled.”
“I never heard of a young quarterback getting rattled,” Winston said, “and then coming back to win the game.”
The Seminoles had outscored their schedule by an absurd margin of 689-139. They averaged 7.8 yards per play. Monday they averaged 5.8.
For 3 quarters, Greene and Benjamin were smothered by Davis and fellow cornerback Jonathan Mincy. And, for almost that long, the game’s MVP appeared to be Auburn punter Steven Clark, who nailed the Seminoles inside their own 5 with punts that died like sand wedge shots. The best drive-start position FSU had in its first nine possessions was on its own 25.
So this was different. The outcome wasn’t.
Winston reset himself by hitting short routes. Jeremy Pruitt’s defense gummed up Auburn’s shell-game offense, merely by beating its blockers and pressuring quarterback Nick Marshall.
And Levonte “Kermit” Whitfield, who was the Florida 3A high school 100 (at 10.15 seconds) and 200 meter champ last year, streaked for a 100-yard kickoff return that put the Seminoles up 27-24.
Meanwhile, Auburn fans had to wonder why Malzahn ran out the clock at the end of the first half, with 1:22 remaining. Placekicker Cody Parkey also missed a 32-yard field goal in the second quarter, and the Tigers bobbled, dribbled or fumbled three consecutive punts, somehow recovering them all.
For the first time since Texas beat USC on this same field, the SEC did not produce the national champion. But then Alabama and Georgia got drilled in bowl games, too. And Florida State would have no trouble qualifying for SEC membership, based on an eye test.
Next year four teams grapple for a new trophy, in the College Football Trophy that replaces the despised BCS. Controversy might increase. Nostalgia might set in. The certainty is that the next champion will have difficulty making us forget this one.