PASADENA, Calif. -- As the Florida State players emerged from the locker room for the second half of Monday night’s VIZIO BCS National Championship, their confidence unwavering in spite of falling behind against Auburn, receiver Kelvin Benjamin said they all agreed in the huddle that “this is our time.”
Florida State had waited long enough.
With the program’s first national title since 1999 on the line, Florida State found one big play after another -- the kind of explosive, big gains they had made look so easy all season but were so hard to come by against Auburn. It wasn’t just Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston, who had been pressured all night by Auburn’s defensive line, who delivered in the clutch. It was freshman Kermit Whitfield, one of the fastest young players in the country, whose jaw-dropping, 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the fourth quarter changed the game with blazing speed. It was Rashad Greene, whose ability to split two defenders and run 49 yards off a screen pass extended the game-winning drive. It was Benjamin, whose otherwise quiet night was overshadowed by the game-winning touchdown.
One thing it wasn’t: all about conference supremacy.
While so much has been made about the ACC versus the SEC, Monday night’s moment of celebrating a 34-31 win over Auburn was for Florida State, and only Florida State. The Seminoles earned it, collectively. As the players made their way to the locker room after the game, clutching roses between their teeth and already wearing their new hats and T-shirts proclaiming them national champs, it was a celebration of an improbable come-from-behind win -- and more than a decade of waiting for the return to No. 1.
“I have to say, it’s been a four-year evolution to put ourselves in this opportunity,” Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said. “We talked about being a program, and we wanted to do things right, and we wanted to build the foundation, and these guys have given their hearts and souls to us as coaches and it’s been unbelievable.”
So was the game -- the last of the BCS era.
Florida State’s comeback from 18 points down was the largest in BCS national championship game history. The Noles trailed 21-3 with 5:01 left in the second quarter. It looked like a dud, a collapse on the game’s biggest stage. Florida State’s strength of schedule was once again called into question. So was its offense. And its defense.
None of the players, though, flinched.
“When you train like we do and practice the way we practice, it’s a habit to go out and play hard and compete,” Greene said. “We weren’t worried. I wasn’t nervous at all. Even when they scored and there wasn’t much time on the clock. Honest to god, I still knew we were going to win the game.”
At halftime, Fisher prodded his team to keep blocking on kickoff returns because “Kermit’s going to pop one anytime now.”
Nobody else saw it coming -- and Auburn couldn’t stop it.
Whitfield’s return was the first special teams touchdown in the national title game since 2007, and it gave FSU a 27-24 lead with 4:31 left in the game. Fisher said Whitfield ran a 10.1 in the 100 meters, the third-fastest time in high school history.
“He has great hips, great acceleration, he’s learning our offense and getting the touches,” Fisher said. “But in the open field, he’s as dynamic as anybody in America.”
With Auburn being such an opportunistic team, though, it wasn’t enough. Auburn responded with a touchdown on the next drive to take the 31-27 lead, and Florida State had 1:19 left to win a national title.
From FSU’s own 28-yard line, Winston found Greene for 49 yards, and two plays later the Noles were in the red zone. Greene said he saw “green grass and one defender,” so he got as many yards as he could before stepping out of bounds.
“I knew those guys were physical corners, physical defenders, so it was my job to get physical back with them and create some type of separation, and I was able to do it,” Greene said. “We definitely had that calm mentality, just take a little at a time and they’ll definitely come, and [the big plays] came at the end.”
Indeed, it was finally their time.