PASADENA, Calif. -- Auburn ran out of magic Monday.
It was Florida State that pulled the rabbit out of its hat, scoring with 13 seconds remaining on a Jameis Winston touchdown pass to give the Seminoles their third national championship, 34-31.
The end of the BCS era came to a wild end.
Three touchdowns were scored in the final five minutes before the Noles pulled out a nail biting victory in the Rose Bowl on Winston’s 2-yard touchdown pass to Kelvin Benjamin. FSU rallied twice in the waning minutes for the win.
"I knew it was going to be a touchdown as soon as I stepped up to the line of scrimmage," said Winston, who turned 20 on Monday. "Anytime you see K.B. one-on-one, it's a dream come true. That's a storybook moment right there."
Said FSU head coach Jimbo Fisher: "It was an unbelievable game."
With FSU trailing 24-20 and time running out on the Seminoles’ season, freshman Kermit Whitfield returned a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown to give the Noles a 27-24 lead.
But Auburn, which had escaped with last-gasp victories on two miraculous plays toward the end of the season, wasn't finished. Tre Mason scored on a 37-yard touchdown run to put the Tigers back on top.
Florida State got the ball back on its own 20 with 1:11 remaining and drove the length of the field to give the school its first national title since 1999. The big play of the drive came on Winston's 49-yard pass completion to Rashad Greene to put the ball in Auburn territory.
Auburn was also called on a key interference call in the end zone, setting up the winning touchdown.
Though the Seminoles breezed through the season by going 13-0 and winning games by an average margin of 42 points, questions lingered about their strength of schedule, its relative lack of stiff competition in the ACC compared to the weekly rigors endured by SEC members.
Still others wondered how FSU would respond under pressure for the first time.
The Seminoles answered their skeptics with an electric win, coming from behind to knock off Auburn.
The Seminoles scored on their opening drive when Roberto Aguayo connected on a 35-yard field goal. But it didn’t take long for Auburn to accomplish something no Florida State opponent had managed to do since September: take the lead on the Seminoles.
Mason hauled in Nick Marshall’s short pass and ran it in untouched for a 12-yard touchdown that put the Tigers on top, 7-3.
The Seminoles led the nation in scoring defense during the season. But Auburn was undaunted, and when Tigers receiver Melvin Ray ended up all alone in the FSU secondary, Marshall found him for a 50-yard touchdown pass that put the Seminoles in a 14-3 hole early in the second quarter.
Winston and the explosive FSU offense, meanwhile, looked like a different unit than the one that turned the scoreboard into a pinball counter over the course of the season.
Florida State was forced to settle for a field goal when its opening drive stalled, and their only first down over their three possessions was the result of a personal foul penalty against Auburn.
Auburn, not noted for its defense -- and its below-average pass defense, especially -- managed to hold Winston and the Seminoles air attack in check for the early part of the game. Winston looked out of whack in the first half, more like most any freshman quarterback than the Heisman winner that he is. Winston completed only 6 of his 15 first-half passes for 62 yards. Not only were his passes off target, but he coughed up the ball with a fumble.
The Tigers expanded their lead to 21-3 on Marshall’s 4-yard run. It was the first rushing touchdown allowed all season by the Seminoles’ first-team defense.
With a growing sense of desperation, the Seminoles finally reached the end zone late in the half on Devonta Freeman’s short touchdown run. But it required a fake punt to sustain the drive.
"It was 21-3," Fisher said of the fake punt call. "I knew with five minutes to go, if they got it back and scored, the game could be over right there before half. Hopefully that changed the momentum of the game and got our confidence back."
While Florida State’s offense was failing to live up to its billing, Auburn’s running game was good as advertised. Mason, the SEC’s offensive player of the year, had 96 rushing yards in the first half alone and finished with 195 yards on the ground.
In the second half, Winston and the Seminoles offense finally showed some life.
Florida State cut the lead to 21-13 on Aguayo’s 41-yard field goal.
After P.J. Williams picked off a Marshall pass in the fourth quarter, the Seminoles zipped down the field, covering 56 yards on five plays and trimming Auburn’s lead to 21-20 on Winston’s 11-yard touchdown pass to Chad Abram.
Cody Parkey’s short field goal gave Auburn a 24-20 lead.
But Whitfield ran the kickoff back 100 yards for the touchdown and, following Mason's touchdown for Auburn, Winston took over and orchestrated the winning drive.
"I was ready," said Winston, who was named the game's MVP. "I wanted to be in that situation because that's what great quarterbacks do. That's what the Tom Bradys, Peyton Mannings, Drew Brees -- that's what they do. Any quarterback can go out there and perform when they're up 50-0 in the second quarter. That's what you're judged by, especially by your teammates. I'm pretty sure I got more respect from my teammates and the people around me on that last drive than I got the whole year."
By Clark Spencer
©2014 The Miami Herald
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