Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston appears almost always calm and smiling, and last night’s final drive in the BCS championship game was no different. ESPN’s John Saunders asked Winston after the game where that joy came from, and his answer was simple: “Good God Almighty.”
Down 31-27 to the Auburn Tigers, Winston had led the Seminoles offense down the field when they (14-0) needed it most. The Heisman Trophy winner capped off the drive with a 2-yard touchdown pass to Kelvin Benjamin with 13 seconds left, as No. 1-ranked Florida State defeated No. 2 Auburn 34-31 to win the Bowl Championship Series title at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif.
Auburn made it to the championship game because of improbable last-minute wins, but last night was Florida State’s turn.
“Those men looked me in my eye and said, ‘We got this, Jameis,’” Winston told reporters after the game. “I said, ‘Are you strong?’ They said, ‘I’m strong if you’re strong.’ I said, ‘We’re strong then.’”
Auburn (12-2) was a heavy underdog, but it outmuscled Florida State in the first half, leading at one time by 18. Winston never looked rattled emotionally, though, even as his first-half fumble led to a 21-3 Auburn lead. The turning point came when Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher called for a fake punt late in the first half, setting up a touchdown to cut the first-half deficit to 21-10.
Florida State dominated the second half on defense until the final five minutes. Then, the lead changed hands three times. After the Seminoles ran a kickoff back for a touchdown to go ahead, Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall took his offense down the field, with running back Tre Mason, a Heisman finalist, putting Auburn up 31-27 on a long run with 1:19 left.
That’s right where Winston said he wanted to be: “That’s what you’re judged by. I’m pretty sure I got more respect from my teammates and the people around me on that last drive than I got the whole year.”
After the winning touchdown, Winston watched with frantic, darting eyes as Auburn had one final chance. The Tigers tried a desperation play, finally lateraling the ball to Mason, but Florida State defenders tackled him, setting off a wild release of emotion.
In the end, Winston, who was named the game’s offensive Most Valuable Player, completed 20-of-35 passes for 237 yards and two fourth-quarter touchdowns. Florida State hadn’t been challenged like this all season, winning by an average of 42 points. It was the first time—and last time—in the 16 championship games of the BCS era that the team losing at halftime won. College football will go to a four-team playoff next year.
And sprinkled in with the “we knew we would win” hubris of college-age footballers, serious words about adversity and teamwork came through from the Florida State coaching staff. Coach Fisher praised his assistant coaches and his team’s resilience. And Winston was the same, not taking the credit for himself: “My team got on my back, and we just went the whole way, man.”
Winston isn’t without his flaws. He almost didn’t play in the game, as he faced rape allegations that would have sidelined him per school policy had charges been filed. It took until Dec. 5 for a state attorney to say evidence couldn’t prove the 2012 encounter wasn’t consensual. Winston won the Heisman Trophy in a landslide days later, but 115 of the 900 voters refused to consider him, bolting under the trophy’s requirement of “excellence with integrity.”
Winston, playing on his 20th birthday, wasn’t the only one to face adversity. His team faced it together, and Winston had an example in his head coach. Jimbo Fisher found out in 2011 that his son Ethan, now 8, has Fanconi anemia, a rare blood disorder that has no cure, and victims typically don’t live past their 20s. Every three months Ethan Fisher faces blood tests that could show he needs a bone marrow transplant—or that he has cancer.
Ethan has become the unofficial mascot of the team, a team bonded by more than the will to win, Fisher told ESPN. “There’s better character on this team than there are players,” Fisher said, wiping his eyes at the trophy presentation after the game. “This team has heart, it has guts, it has determination, and more importantly, it loves each other. That’s the reason we play.”
Winston after the game said, “I’m so blessed.” He said of Fisher, “All the stuff that he handled with Ethan, and he come out here and coach us? It touched me, and it’s nobody but God.”