Winston's 'bad' game still looked good

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Jimbo Fisher shuffled off the stage following his postgame press conference Saturday, still perusing a crumpled sheet of paper with the stats from Florida State’s 41-14 win over Miami.

Fisher had just spent the previous 15 minutes answering questions about his quarterback’s struggles, but the numbers next to Jameis Winston’s name on that stat sheet didn’t exactly match the critique. He threw for 325 yards. He completed all but two passes in the second half. He helped Florida State to more than 500 total yards for the sixth time this season.

“He was so bad,” Fisher joked before escaping the media throng.

Indeed, Saturday’s performance -- 21-of-29 for 325 yards, one TD and two interceptions -- is what constitutes a struggle for Winston, the Heisman hopeful whose season has offered few opportunities for skepticism. He’s set the bar high enough that eventually, he was bound to fall short.

“I keep forgetting he’s a freshman, too,” said Fisher, who has rarely referred to his quarterback by his class designation this season. “I’m not used to him making many mistakes either. But he didn’t make many.”

It’s parsing an otherwise strong performance -- Winston’s adjusted QBR for the game was a sterling 94.6, the sixth-best performance of the week -- but there were those two noticeable mistakes.

Both interceptions came on similar throws -- deep balls down the middle of the field, where Winston had neglected to consider a safety coming over the top. On the first, it appeared receiver Rashad Greene got tangled with the corner. On the second, there looked to be an obvious miscommunication with tight end Nick O’Leary. And yet, both throws were clearly poor decisions by Winston.

For Miami, that was the idea.

The conventional wisdom from the outset of the season was to blitz Winston, forcing the inexperienced quarterback into a mistake. But Winston has made defenses pay for such an unimaginative approach. Entering Saturday’s game, he was exceptional against the blitz, completing 70 percent of his passes for an average of 12.4 yards per attempt with 11 touchdowns and just two INTs, according to ESPN Stats and Information.

By the time Miami arrived in Tallahassee, the secret was out.

“They blitzed a little bit, but they did it more like fire zone, slanting the line,” tackle Cameron Erving said. “They were coached well.”

Miami still blitzed on roughly one-third of Winston’s attempts, but the Hurricanes prioritized coverage over the top, hoping to lull the aggressive Winston into a mistake downfield. In the first half, the plan mostly worked.

On both interceptions, Fisher said there was a better option underneath that Winston should have looked to, but it’s hard to ask a quarterback having so much success downfield to change his stripes in an instant.

“He’s just aggressive,” Fisher said. “If you say ‘whoa’ and you’re hesitant, you can’t play. He’s made so many plays. We’ll live with a few of those [mistakes], and he’ll grow from them. He loves throwing the ball in the middle of the field, and we’re going to continue to be aggressive in there.”

Fisher was correct on both counts.

Winston did learn from his mistakes. At halftime, he promised his teammates there wouldn’t be another turnover. He was true to his word, with just two second-half passes falling incomplete. Winston adjusted to the game plan, checking down to his backs and tight end more often. For the game, they accounted for 10 of his 21 completions and 152 of his 325 passing yards.

Florida State also ran the ball more than it had all season. Sixty percent of the Seminoles’ plays were runs, the highest of the season against an FBS foe. The ground game’s effectiveness paid off for Winston, too. He was a stellar 10-of-11 for 183 yards off play-action passes against Miami.

But Winston remains aggressive, and the fact that three of the six interceptions he’s thrown this season were balls deep over the middle hasn’t altered that philosophy a bit.

“Most of my completions are on the deep ball in the middle, too,” Winston said. “I just made mistakes forcing the ball, and I can’t do that. I’ve got to check the ball down and just move on.”

Chalk it up to a learning experience, Fisher said.

Teams will continue to adjust, hoping to find an answer to Winston’s offensive exploits. Winston must adjust, too, and Saturday’s win provided a template for how that can happen while Florida State still marches to an easy win.

“I don’t know if I learned a lot about myself, but I learned a lot about this team,” Winston said afterward. “They really put me on their shoulders and carried me the whole way.”