When it mattered most, Jameis Winston puts on show for FSU

PASADENA, Calif. — In a season of dominating performances, Florida State was bound to have a nail-biter.

And the Seminoles needed not one but two comebacks for the program’s third national title.

Jameis Winston, fighting through his worst night during a Heisman Trophy season, was staring down two major problems: Auburn’s defense was protecting 80 yards of green grass, and there was just 1 minute and 12 seconds on the clock.

So Winston, who was celebrating his 20th birthday Monday, took charge in a moment that will live on in championship game history. In a stadium that has hosted Super Bowls and 100 Rose Bowls, he turned in a final drive for the ages.

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"I wanted to be in that situation because that’s what great quarterbacks do," Winston said. "That’s what the Tom Bradys, Peyton Mannings, Drew Brees, that’s what they do."

Winston began to complete passes like he had done all season. He was 6 of 7 on the final drive, including a 49-yard catch-and-run by Rashad Greene that set up Florida State at the Auburn 23.

And with 13 seconds left, after a see-saw five minutes to wrap up the final BCS championship game, Winston found Kelvin Benjamin in the end zone for a 2-yard touchdown reception that gave Florida State a 34-31 victory at the Rose Bowl.

A redshirt freshman, Winston led Florida State to its third national championship but first since 1999.

"We’re champions — that’s all that matters to me," Winston said.

Florida State rallied from an 18-point first-half deficit, going ahead 27-24 with 4:31 to go on Kermit Whitfield’s 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.

The Seminoles appeared to have completed the rally.

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Auburn answered, using a 37-yard touchdown by Tre Mason to go up 31-27 with 1:19 to go. Mason had 195 of Auburn’s 232 rushing yards.

The Tigers appeared to have pulled off yet another miracle.

But then Winston put together a seven-play, 80-yard touchdown drive in just 58 seconds. As stunning as it was to watch Winston look pedestrian for three quarters, he impressed by looking like a fifth-year senior. Again.

"It’s the best football game he played all year, and I’ll tell you why," Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said. "Because for three quarters he was up-and-down, and he fought. And just like any great player, some nights you don’t have it.

"When you can come back like the great ones do, it’s not my night but we’ve got a chance to win this ballgame. It’s 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."

Winston was far from great early, completing just 11 of 24 passes for 120 yards in the first three quarters. But he finished by going 9 of 11 for 107 yards in the fourth quarter, including an 11-yard touchdown pass to Chad Abram with 10:55 to go and the final TD to Benjamin.

The Heisman Trophy winner became the 14th player to win college football’s most prestigious award and also claim a national title in the same season. Florida State’s Charlie Ward (1993) is among those to do both.

Perfection achieved

Florida State won its third national title and became the fourth team in the BCS era to finish a season 14-0. It was the last national title game of the BCS, and it was arguably one of the best.

And in many ways, it was won by a freshman who played like a senior in the final minutes.

Winston grew up just a half hour from Alabama’s campus and two hours from Auburn’s campus. He considered both, along with Stanford and LSU, before choosing Florida State in February 2012.

Now Winston and Florida State have snapped the SEC’s seven-year winning streak in the championship game.

"I’m pretty sure people back home are going to say five championships in the state of Alabama because of me being from Alabama," Winston said. "Alabama people are going to try to keep it in their state however they can, but Florida State has the national championship."

You can follow Bob Ferrante on Twitter @bobferrante or email him at bobferrante17@gmail.com.