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Couch: Florida State rallies, turns amazing finish into national title
It was about Jameis Winston having his best game because it was mostly his worst game. It was about the SEC reign ending. It might have been about Florida State lining up perfectly now for a dynasty.
But I think maybe that championship game Monday night was mostly about this: Oh my God, that was the most amazing finish. College football had one of those moments Monday night, when Florida State beat Auburn 34-31 in the national championship game.
In the last five minutes, this game lost its mind.
The thing is, emotion in sports is usually something we talk about as a sidelight. But in this case, I think it was what this was all about. It was sports at its best, an open nerve-ending when you stop thinking and just start feeling.
For the last five minutes, I was on the Auburn sideline, and it’s hard to explain, but you could feel the emotion from there. It was the same sort of buzz or jittery feeling you get watching a fight, where one boxer knocks down the other one, who gets up and knocks down the first guy, who gets up and ...
It’s impossible to explain, really. But you find your hands on the top of your head, and don’t know how they got there. And then you find yourself screaming but don’t remember starting into it.
Florida State center Bryan Stork, a 300-pound man with a long red beard, was on the field, crying like a little girl. That was his description. I talked to him about in the locker room afterward, and he barely remembered any of the plays in the game. He didn’t recall a fake punt.
He spoke so dispassionately about his dreams coming true, saying it was surreal to see Bobby Bowden on the field for the coin flip, and then watching all those touchdowns scored in the last five minutes. He was basically in a fog.
When the players were finished celebrating on the field, they went into the locker room and at least a dozen of them stopped before going to their lockers and watched the replay on TV to try to remind themselves of what had just happened.
Actually, in the last five minutes, Florida State lost the title, then won it, then lost it, and then, with 13 seconds left, won it again when Winston basically put up a jump shot of a 2-yard touchdown pass to receiver Kelvin Benjamin.
But even before that, you saw coaches acting and counter-acting. Much of it was based around Winston, who looked more like a freshman than a Heisman winner for most of that game.
And then he led the game-winning drive in the final 1:19. In a season of blowouts it was the first time Winston had truly been pressured or tested.
“I wanted to be in that situation because that’s what great quarterbacks do,’’ Winston said. “That’s what the Tom Bradys, the 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.’’
Auburn defensive end Dee Ford was getting to Winston, hitting him, sacking him. The whole line was. Auburn mostly just rushed four lineman and had a spy on Winston. Coach Gus Malzahn had said Sunday that the goal was to keep Winston off-balance.
“That’s one thing that we prepared for the entire 30 days that we had to prepare,’’ Ford said. “He started holding the ball. He started second-guessing his decisions, and that’s exactly what I knew – he’s a freshman, and I think tonight we kind of exposed that.’’
Not true, Winston said: “I never felt rattled from Auburn’s defense or anything they were doing. But throughout the whole game, I was uncomfortable. ... It was myself - it was me wanting to do too much instead of doing what I needed to do.’’
Ford was right, but it doesn’t matter why Winston was off, only that he was. So Florida State’s coaches adjusted in the second half, had receivers running shorter routes to get Winston throwing quicker before he’d get hit.
Or before he’d think too much.
“As a quarterback, you’ve got to always believe that you are never bigger than the game,’’ Winston said, explaining what he was doing wrong. “I was like, `Man, I’m trying to blow these boys out.’ I had to remember, `Hey, I’ve got to respect the game. I’ve got teammates around me. I’ve got a team for a reason.’ ’’
It wouldn’t have gotten this far if it hadn’t been for the fake punt Stork had forgotten. It was late in the second quarter, and Auburn led 21-3 and had all the momentum. Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher feared that if he punted, Auburn would have just scored again, and won.
Instead, that drive ended in a touchdown for Florida State.
For the record, Auburn kicked a 22-yard field goal with 4:42 left for a 24-20 lead. Then, Florida State’s Kermit Whitfield returned the kickoff 100 yards and the Seminoles were up 27-24. Next up, Auburn’s Tre Mason broke a 37-yard touchdown run for a 31-27 lead with 1:19 left. That was plenty for Florida State’s 80-yard drive.
Florida State safety Terrence Brooks told me on the field that he was never worried. He knew Florida State would pull it out, and all the talk about Auburn as the team of destiny? The Seminoles don’t believe in destiny.
So what did Brooks see on that last play? Why, technically, in a football sense, did it work so easily?
Oh, Brooks didn’t see it, he said. He was covering his eyes, praying.
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