CLEMSON, S.C. — Smatterings of orange and purple were still visible throughout Memorial Stadium, but the brunt of the remaining crowd on this cool South Carolina night sat in the Northwest corner, their wordless war chant growing louder as the clock wore down.
The rushed onto the field, swarming Florida State at midfield, all Tomahawk Chopping in unison as the fifth-ranked Seminoles hammered No. 3 Clemson 51-14.
There, amid the chaos was a woman holding a sign with the words “Famous Jameis” and underneath a cartoon of quarterback Jameis Winston strangling a tiger.
The reality wasn’t quite so graphic, but it was close.
“That was a grown man,” said wide receiver Rashad Greene.
In a matchup that featured the ACC’s fourth all-time meeting of top 5 teams and a showdown of two of the nation’s premier quarterbacks, we got something no one could have expected. For the first time in more than a decade, the conference has a clear contender for a Heisman Trophy.
This was a coronation and a testament to the power of Jameis.
Playing in an atmosphere that was billed as the biggest test of the redshirt freshman’s young career, Winston wasted no time in, as he put it, “silencing Death Valley.”
Following a fumble by Clemson’s Stanton Seckinger, his first pass attempt of the game — a ball he floated toward the right front pylon — would find Kelvin Benjamin for a 22-yard touchdown.
“We don’t play against noise. We’re playing against the Clemson Tigers,” Winston said. “It was amazing, when we were out on the field that first snap. It was loud and we started smiling because we don’t play against noise.”
By the end of a quarter, the Tigers led 17-7 and by halftime that lead had ballooned to 20. The Seminoles would score more points than any opponent in the stadium’s history as Winston threw for 444 yards (23 of 34) and three TDs and he ran for another score.
“You’ve got to prioritize what matters and what you can control and he he understands,” coach Jimbo Fisher said. “We talk a lot about that. We spend a lot of time on those conversations but he is also very mature to be able to handle that. That’s a gift.”
Wilson wasn’t perfect. He threw a second-quarter interception, but even that wasn’t entirely his fault. Fisher would reveal afterward that there was a problem with the headset that had Winston throwing to his receiver on a single move instead of the double move he ran.
But following the pick, Winston would lead the Seminoles to scoring drives on six of their last eight possessions, including TD passes of 72 and 17 yards to Greene, and a 4-yard TD run by Winston.
Afterward, he stood in a dark suit underneath the stadium, the charismatic QB playing to a crowd of reporters.
“Our team is legit … too legit to quit,” Winston said, smiling.
The hat tip to MC Hammer was only the icing on the cake. On a day when Heisman contender after Heisman contender saw their chances take a hit, Winston only boosted his resume with arguably the most impressive victory of the season.
Friday, Teddy Bridgewater and No. 8 Louisville suffered their first loss of the season, a blemish that severely hurt the QBs hopes of winning his school’s first Heisman.
Then Saturday claimed its candidates in bunches, with UCLA’s Brett Hundley (192 yards, one TD and two INTs in a loss to No. 13 Stanford), Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel (falling to No. 24 Auburn in his second defeat), LSU’s Zach Mettenberger (three picks in losing to Ole Miss) Georgia’s Aaron Murray (114 yards passing and a pick in falling to Vanderbilt) and Washington’s Bishop Sankey (22 yards and a TD on 13 carries vs. Arizona State) all falling by the wayside.
Of course, there was also Boyd, the other heavyweight in Saturday’s expected epic. But he passed for just 156 yards and a score and threw two picks, marking his firs game with more INTs than TDs since the Tigers’ last loss on Nov. 24 of last season vs. South Carolina.
“I just didn’t play the way I was capable,” Boyd said. “As a leader it’s my job to go out and lead and perform and I just didn’t do that.”
Winston did, feasting on the moment and putting the conference in line as we dig deeper into the second half of the season to end a rough run in the Heisman voting.
The ACC last won a trophy with the Seminoles’ Chris Weinke in 2000 and in the years since, the conference has been an afterthought in the race. Just five times has the league had anyone in the top 10 in voting, with the best finish coming from Clemson’s C.J. Spiller in 2009 when he was sixth, and it hasn’t had a finalist since that Weinke win.
It was Boyd that entered the season, along with Miami’s Duke Johnson, as Las Vegas’ top threat to end that drought. While Johnson’s Hurricanes remain undefeated and will set up another top-10 clash for the Seminoles when they meet on Nov. 2 in Tallahassee, he’s no longer a viable candidate amid a great but not dominant season.
The conference’s hopes now lie with Winston, a trail that thanks to Manziel a year ago, isn’t as daunting as it once was for redshirt freshmen.
Voters have a long history of riding trends, including the run of running backs during the 1970s and early 80s, wide receivers – whose only victories came within five years of each other with Tim Brown (1987) and Desmond Howard (1991) — and sophomores as Tim Tebow’s groundbreaking win in 2007 was followed by Sam Bradford and Mark Ingram.
Winston won’t be chasing the same place in history as Manziel and instead of being seen as a symbol of a refined voting mindset, he would simply be seen as a transcendent QB.
Statistically, Winston should be right on line with what we’ve come to expect from Heisman-winning QBs, with the last five all averaging 4,500 yards and 47 TDs. He’s on pace for 4,699 total yards and 46 scores and could easily surpass those numbers with the likes of Wake Forest (41st in total defense), Syracuse (56th) and Idaho (122nd) still on the schedule.
The hype surrounding Winston is only going to grow, which harkens back to an exchange he had with reporters this summer. When asked about how reigning Heisman winner Manziel handled the spotlight, Winston quipped “If I ever get Manziel disease, I want all of you to smack me in the head with your microphones.”
Reminded of that quote, Winston smiled before saying “I’m going to keep playing. I’m going to put everything on my team. It’s easy to get the big head when you’re just about yourself.”