Winston wins despite early stumbles

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PASADENA, Calif. -- Over 13 games, Jameis Winston proved himself the best player in college football. The Florida State quarterback proved a redshirt freshman could win the Heisman Trophy while leading his team to an undefeated season, a No. 1 ranking and a place in the BCS National Championship. He proved he could maintain his focus down the home stretch as the nation speculated for a month on whether he might be a felon.

On Monday night, playing No. 2 Auburn at the Rose Bowl, Winston proved something else entirely. He proved he is human, that he can be thrown off his rhythm, that he can telegraph his passes, that he can play a half looking like the first-year player that the roster says he is.

Winston proved he can do all of that and still lead his team to victory in the biggest game of his young life. With Florida State trailing Auburn 31-27 and only 1:19 showing on the clock, Winston took the Seminoles 80 yards in seven plays, and threw a 2-yard touchdown pass to Kelvin Benjamin with 13 seconds to spare, the winning margin in a 34-31 victory that sent the BCS out with a flourish.

Winston left his teenage years behind him Monday night, and not just because it was his 20th birthday.

"It's the best football game he played all year," Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said, "and I'll tell you why: 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 go back like the great ones do -- 'It's not my night, but we've got a chance to win this ballgame. It's in the fourth quarter, I've got one or two touches left' -- and you can take your team down the field and lead to victory, that's what a great player is to me.

"Anybody can do it when it's their A-game night. A lot of guys can do that. Very few can do it when it's not their night."

Before the final drive, Winston had gone 14-for-28 for 160 yards and a touchdown. On the final drive, Winston went 6-for-7 for 77 yards.

"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 Breeses, the Cam Newtons, that's what they do. Any quarterback can go out there and perform when they're up 50-0 in the second quarter."

Winston led the Seminoles to a field goal on their opening possession. On their next five possessions, Winston led the Seminoles to four three-and-outs and a turnover. Credit the pressure the Auburn defensive front put on Winston. Credit dropped passes. And that turnover, Winston pulled the ball down to run and forgot to tuck it away. Auburn recovered his fumble on the Florida State 27 and converted it into the touchdown that gave the Tigers a 21-3 lead.

"Bad things happen in a football game," Benjamin said. "Sometimes, it just don't go your way."

In the first half, Winston said, "I was so outcome-oriented. I was like, 'Man, I'm trying to blow those 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, so I can't go out there and do stuff by myself.'"

With the Seminoles playing like a Wall Street bubble about to burst, Winston led his team back into the game. The fumble, he said, settled him down.

"I was like, 'There's nothing to lose now,'" Winston said. "I already messed up."

With the help of a fake punt that kept the drive alive, Winston drove the Seminoles for their first touchdown late in the half. Fisher called shorter passes, trying to find a rhythm for his quarterback and his offense.

With Auburn punter Steven Clark pinning Florida State inside the 20 time and again, the Seminoles needed a quarterback with patience. They drove 67 yards in the third quarter just to kick a 41-yard field goal.

But in the fourth quarter, after the Seminoles played uphill all night, Winston sandwiched two touchdown drives around Kermit Whitfield's 100-yard kickoff return.

"He stayed poised throughout the game," said Chris Weinke, another Florida State quarterback who won a national championship (1999) and a Heisman (2000). "Things didn't go their way. They adapted. ... At halftime, Jimbo said, 'Stick to the plan. It's not about emotion. It's not about the outcome. Stick to the plan.' It's not always about taking a shot down the field. Get patience. Complete balls. Move the chains."

Weinke said this, too: "He's as good a young quarterback as I've ever seen."

Former Seminole All-American tailback Warrick Dunn stood on the field after the game looking at the national champions on the portable stage. "He grew up," Dunn said of Winston, "not having the best game, but he did enough to help his team, to put them in position. He showed a lot of resilience. He had his leadership. He grew up tonight."

On the game's biggest stage in the sport's grandest stadium, Jameis Winston showed one more way in which he is talented beyond his years. Winston proved he didn't need his best stuff to win.

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