TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- He started with 11 straight completions, an answer to anyone who wondered if this chaos would finally unravel the unflappable focus of Jameis Winston.
He lounged on the sideline throughout the entirety of the second half of yet another blowout win, joking with former Heisman winner and Florida State great Charlie Ward. If Winston was worried that an off-field scandal might squash his hopes of following in Ward’s footsteps, his wide smile and relaxed demeanor didn’t show it Saturday.
Once the 59-3 shellacking of Syracuse was over, Winston lingered on the field for a few extra moments, then darted toward the tunnel, stopping behind the end zone when he found coach Jimbo Fisher’s young son. He shared high-fives with a contingent of kids, then exited the field through a cadre of fans reaching out their hands and shouting his name, disappearing into the locker room that is his sanctuary.
This was Florida State’s first mantra this week: Everything stays the same.
“It’s the same Jameis,” receiver Kenny Shaw said. “Practice was the same, everything was the same. Same schedule. Nothing changed.”
Eventually, Winston emerged to face the cameras and the reporters. During his five-minute news conference, he faced a slew of questions about his focus, but not one about his potential involvement in a sexual-assault case being investigated by the state attorney’s office. Media had been instructed that Winston would discuss football only, but those unanswered questions tinged every aspect of Florida State’s victory on Saturday.
That is the other mantra at Florida State until there is some resolution to this case: No comment.
“One thing about Florida State, we’re a big family,” Winston said, “and we stay inside the family.”
A sexual assault was alleged to have occurred last December, and at some point after that, Winston became entangled in the investigation. On Wednesday, that information became public, but few other details of the story have emerged since.
Fisher skillfully dodged questions during a postgame media session that was, at times, more like a chess match between those who wanted details and a man who might have some.
Winston turned the focus onto his teammates, just as he had all season. Florida State’s defense once again was dominant. The offense scored touchdowns on its first five drives. There was too much love to go around to belabor the ugly story that overshadowed everything else for the previous four days.
The rest of the Seminoles were subjected to similar scrutiny, but they were careful not to provide any spark that might further ignite this growing media firestorm. It was, defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan said, the closest thing possible to business as usual.
“The guy, he’s had a lot going on around him from the start of the season,” Jernigan said of Winston, a redshirt freshman. “When you play like he plays, a lot’s going to come with it, whether it’s in a good way or a bad way. He’s just going out and playing his game. Nothing’s going to bother him.”
Indeed, Winston hardly seemed flustered by the off-field distractions. He finished the game completing 19 of 21 passes for 277 yards and two touchdowns. He delivered a devastating block 40 yards downfield on a 74-yard touchdown run by freshman Levonte Whitfield. He nearly drew a flag sprinting onto the field to celebrate a defensive touchdown. He beamed after his backup, Sean Maguire, threw the first touchdown pass of his career in the third quarter, a beautiful lob to tight end Nick O'Leary in the end zone that may offer some hope for Florida State’s offense should this scandal derail Winston’s season.
“Nothing’s going to hold Jaboo back,” tailback James Wilder Jr. said of his QB. “He’s always happy, always cheering. He was tuned in, locked in.”
Before the game, the 1993 national championship team was honored, and even Seminoles 20 years removed from their playing days faced questions. Ward offered support for Winston. After an 11-month delay in investigating the incident, Ward suggested the timing of Tallahassee police’s decision to send the case to the state attorney was curious.
Derrick Brooks, a defensive star on that 1993 team, said this year’s Seminoles would rally around Winston. Championship teams, he said, always face adversity, and the cure was to step back onto the field.
But adversity seems like the wrong word. Fans cheered his name, and reporters studied Winston’s face for signs that the cloud of suspicion would finally crack his unflinchingly upbeat facade. But the alleged victim in the case remains nameless and faceless to the public, another in the stream of details still unknown.
Saturday’s game did little to part the clouds of the growing storm surrounding the program. It simply proved once again that, with Winston at quarterback, Florida State is a team more than capable of playing for a national championship.
“When you have great veterans around you and great people you trust,” Winston said, “you want to go out on that battlefield and play your heart out for them.”