By Ralph D. Russo
PASADENA, Calif. – For all Jameis Winston had done as a redshirt freshman for Florida State, he never had to pull the Seminoles from the brink of defeat.
In the biggest game of the year, down by four with 79 seconds left, the Heisman Trophy winner put together the drive of his life, and the Seminoles proved they could take a punch to win a championship.
Winston threw a 2-yard touchdown pass to Kelvin Benjamin with 13 seconds left and No. 1 Florida State beat No. 2 Auburn 34-31 to win the BCS national title game on Monday night.
“There’s a lot of heart and guts down in Tallahassee, too,” coach Jimbo Fisher said.
The Bowl Championship Series went out with a bang, with one of the best title games in its 16-year history. It will be replaced by a four-team playoff next season. And the Southeastern Conference’s seven-year winning streak in college football’s biggest game was snapped by the Atlantic Coast Conference school that played in the first three BCS title games but hadn’t been back since.
Florida State was voted a unanimous No. 1 in the final AP Top 25. Auburn finished second.
Winston struggled much of the night but was near perfect when the Seminoles (14-0) needed it most, going 6 for 7 for 77 yards on the game-winning 80-yard drive.
“It was the best football game he’s played all year,” Fisher said, “and I’ll tell you why, because for three quarters he was up and down and he fought.
“And to pull it out in the atmosphere and environment and with what was on the line tonight, to me if that’s not a great player, I don’t know who is.”
Winston was 20 for 35 for 237 yards and two fourth-quarter touchdown passes. He zipped the Seminoles down the field on the final drive, with a 49-yard catch and run from Rashad Greene.
Florida State also got help from Auburn, too. A pass interference penalty on Chris Davis on third-and-8 from the 10 gave Florida State a first down at the 2.
“Thought it was great defense. That’s all I can say,” Davis said, adding, the officials “should have just let us play.”
On the next play Winston flipped high to the 6-foot-5 Benjamin for the touchdown.
“Once the ball is in the air on that post route, I’ve got to go get it, and I did,” Benjamin said. “Simple as that.”
There was no miracle finish this time for the turnaround Tigers, who went from 3-9 to SEC champions in their first season under coach Gus Malzahn. They tossed the ball around on one final play, but it ended with Florida State jumping on a fumble, and the Seminoles sprinting onto the field under a storm of garnet and gold confetti.
Florida State scored 21 points in the fourth quarter, and the teams combined for 24 in a breathtaking last 4:42.
“It felt storybook again,” Auburn defensive tackle Gabe Wright said. “It really felt like we were going to bring it out again. We’re just on the other end of the stick. It’s usually us going out on the field and celebrating. It’s been a long time since we had an ‘L’ in this locker room.”
Auburn won nine straight to get here after starting the season unranked.
Tre Mason gave Auburn (12-2) a 31-27 lead with a 37-yard touchdown run with 1:19 left after Kermit Whitfield had put Florida State in the lead for the first time since the first quarter with a 100-yard kickoff return to make it 27-24 with 4:31 left.
Mason ran for 195 yards and Nick Marshall threw two touchdown passes for the Tigers.
“I told them in the locker room, we put together the biggest turnaround in the history of college football. We were on the brink of making it one of those magical seasons,” Malzahn said.
Florida State hadn’t been challenged like this all season, winning by an average of 42 points.
Florida State and Winston’s biggest problem this season came off the field. Winston was investigated for a year-old sexual assault complaint in November, but after three weeks the Florida state attorney’s office determined it did not have enough evidence to charge him.
Winston, who turned 20 Monday, told his teammates before the final drive: “’Guys, we didn’t come here for no reason.’ I said ‘Y’all, this is ours, man.”’
The Seminoles were down 21-3 in the first half, and wobbling, but never fell over.
And now Florida State is national champion for the first time since 1999, the first team to win the BCS title game after being down at halftime.
Winston was jumpy against a strong Auburn pass rush, led by Dee Ford. Winston was sacked four times.
The Seminoles cut it to 21-10 with a late touchdown in the second quarter, following a faked punt and a tough 21-yard run by Winston, and chipped into Auburn’s lead with a 41-yard field goal by Roberto Aguayo with 6:05 left in the third.
Meanwhile, Florida State had found some answers to Auburn’s spread offense. A holding penalty that wiped out a long pass also helped keep the Tigers scoreless in the third quarter, and the Seminoles began the fourth with P.J. Williams intercepting Marshall’s pass and setting up Florida State at its 38.
When Winston tossed in the flats to Chad Abram, who hurdled over a tackler on the way to an 11-yard touchdown, the lead was 21-19. Florida State was considering going for two to tie, but Devonta Freeman was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct and that pushed the extra point back 15 yards and forced the Seminoles to kick and make it 21-20.
Auburn responded with Cody Parkey’s 22-yard field goal to make it 24-20 with 4:42 left.
During Winston’s record-breaking season, filled with blowouts and fourth quarters spent watching from the sideline, he never faced a situation in which he had to drive his team to a winning score.
Now he had a chance to add that last line to his remarkable resume — until Whitfield handled it for him.
Whitfield broke through a seam around the 30 and hit the sideline at full speed. Fisher ran down the other sideline yelling “Go! Go!” with Winston chasing behind pumping his arms and slapping his coach on the back. Florida State was on top, but Auburn was not done and Winston would be called upon one last time.
“Only thing is we’re victorious and glad to say Florida State is the national champion again, and I guarantee you we’re bringing that swag back,” Winston said. “You’d better believe it.”