Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston took the shotgun snap. As was the case most of the night, he had a clean pocket. He found his receiver Rashad Greene on a little eight-yard hook. “Good work,” I’m thinking. “Get your first down.”
Clemson safety Bashaud Breeland dropped his head trying to make the receiver pay, and Greene made him miss. Then, defensive tackle Kevin Dodd valiantly tried a shoestring tackle, but couldn’t make it. Greene accelerated into the now-open field. It was a footrace. Cornerback Darius Robinson looked like he had the angle, but Greene was going to gain quite a few yards before anyone tackled him.
10, 15, 20 yards. And I’m thinking, “wait a tick… Robinson’s not closing the distance… Holy shit! That’s a touchdown!” This was the first time it occurred me that the two teams on that field in Clemson were not on the same level this Saturday. At that point, it was 24-7 for FSU.
Sure, Clemson had lost a fumble on their first offensive play of the game. Sure, Winston’s first pass of the game was a touchdown to mammoth receiver Kelvin Benjamin, who looks like a faster version of Plaxico Burress. Sure, cornerback LaMarcus Joyner sacked Clemson QB Tajh Boyd and forced a fumble which was recovered and brought back for a touchdown by FSU’s Mario Edwards. Up until Greene’s touchdown, it was already clear FSU were playing better than Clemson.
But the Tigers were showing signs of fighting back. Boyd did find
that filthy traitor receiver Sammy Watkins for a touchdown. The defence did intercept Winston as FSU was threatening to score again. I was expecting a back-and-forth affair much like last year’s 41-37 classic. With Clemson trailing by ten but threatening to trim the lead to three, it was looking that way.
But when Greene pulled away from the Clemson defence, all of a sudden, the vibe was different. It wasn’t momentum. It was superiority. When Tajh Boyd, who had himself one miserable night, threw an interception to FSU’s Joyner though the ‘Noles had only 10 men on the field, it dawned upon me FSU might not so much beat Clemson as they might maul them. In typical nervous-fan fashion, I didn’t believe it until Clemson started coming apart at the seams in the third quarter, taking stupid unnecessary roughness penalties and seemingly having every nice offensive play called back for holding. One of their defensive backs was ejected for targeting. It was as if the Tigers were coming to terms with the fact that they were not ready for what the Seminoles had in store for them today. It just wasn’t going to happen for them.
After the game, the only word ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit could muster was “Wow!” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, classy in defeat, observed that “Florida State might be the best team in the nation. You just don’t have a lot of room for error against a team like that.” What was clear, though, was that no one, not Herbstreit, not Swinney, and certainly not me, saw this beatdown coming. No one except, it would seem, Jameis Winston.
Much was said about Winston finally looking like a freshman. This game would have been a logical time for it to happen. Big stage; hostile atmosphere; best conference opponent; third-ranked team vs fifth-ranked team: this is the type of stage where inexperienced youngsters usually fail. Winston, however, is clearly not just any freshman.
If you haven’t seen the highlights from the game, watch them here. Beyond any individual moment (though Benjamin’s touchdown catch is far from banal), what struck me is Winston’s speech to his teammates in the locker room before the game. It shows you what Winston is, in a nutshell. “My brothers,” he says. “Put a smile on your face.” Had I been Dabo Swinney and seen this before the game, I would have been terrified. Winston was sincere. This was not a kid pretending not to be scared. This kid was not scared, period.
One of the usual clichés in sports, especially at the quarterback position, is the so-called “it” factor. WInston is not a walking human highlight reel like Johnny Manziel. There isn’t one ball that had me go “Oh, wow!” Not every throw is spot on target; his mechanics still need work. The kid, it seems, just manages the game, but next thing you know, he’s thrown for 444 yards, three touchdowns and has run for another one. By all accounts, he’s now played himself into the Heisman race.
Another beautiful moment tonight was when he was asked about Heisman consideration and his first, completely spontaneous answer was “it’s all down to my teammates.” And it is.
Even during FSU’s dark period between 2003 (or so) and last year, Florida State always had impressive-looking athletes. They always looked great coming out of the bus. Except unlike some of the overhyped cream puffs with whom FSU embarrassed itself during the final years of Bobby Bowden’s career, this group of guys can really play.
FSU’s dynamic trio of receivers (Benjamin, Greene and Kenny Shaw) chipped away at Clemson’s secondary all day. Tight end, Nick O’Leary, who reminds me of Dallas Clark, except he blocks better, led the team in receiving, including a 94-yarder when Clemson forgot about him on a play action fake. The running game, strangely ineffective in the first two quarters, became a factor in the second half when FSU started running the outside zone play from the gun split formation.
And that defence swarms like that of the FSU of old. 3-technique Timmy Jernigan ought to be a first-round pick, and the front doesn’t appear to suffer too much from losing three ends to the NFL draft. LaMarcus Joyner is a great leader in the secondary, and he had his greatest game as a Seminole when it counted most. And linebacker Telvin Smith is a special player.
Last but not least, offensive line coach Rick Trickett continues to take high school linemen nobody knows about and turn them into zone blocking monsters. I don’t know of anyone who coaches the position better in college ball than Trickett.
But to come back to Winston, it’s not the tangibles that make him great but the intangibles. His personality could not be more conducive to success as a quarterback, but we were waiting to see it on the big stage. There was a blip when he completed 24 of 26 passes against Pittsburgh, but that was the one time. He deep-fried Wake Forest and Maryland, but they’re Wake Forest and Maryland. The Clemson game, however, seems to leave very little doubt as to Winston’s legitimacy. The “it” factor is one of those things that can’t be described; you just know it when you see it. And Winston has it.
The long road back
I’m sorry for going on and on about this, but you have to understand how emotional this game is for me as an FSU fan. The years of misery I had to go through while the program basically went through seven years of irrelevancy weighed on me.
Years of crappy quarterbacking from Chris Rix, Drew Weatherford and Xavier Lee. Years of inept offensive line play, of failing overrated skill position players, of defensive mediocrity. And, of course, enough frustrating games to send me into depression. Between the 30-0 loss to Wake Forest at home in 2006, to the two losses at home to Russell Wilson’s NC State, to four years of not belonging on the same field as Tebow’s Gators, to several upset losses to pedestrian opponents like Boston College and Virginia, I had to watch teams like Clemson and North Carolina out-recruit the Noles in Florida and assume the kind of identity my Noles once had. That Miami took a similar downturn was of no consolation whatsoever.
Things got slightly better with Christian Ponder at quarterback, but the Noles were still a shadow of their former selves. And as I told anybody who would listen last year, FSU were much better under EJ Manuel, but they weren’t quite there yet.
A few years ago, there was a trend of naming “coaches-in-waiting.” Just about everybody hated it; it vanished very quickly. However, FSU head coach Jimbo Fisher has to be the most successful test subject of this M.O. The job he has done at FSU is remarkable, the culminating point of which (so far) was this drubbing of Clemson. Don’t let the score fool you, they might be overrated, but Clemson is one talented team, and yet they could seemingly do nothing right against the Seminoles tonight.
FSU might lose a trap game to a team like NC State or the scary fast Miami Hurricanes, but this type of outclassing of a quality opponent is something I hadn’t seen from FSU for a very long time. The lesser Seminole teams found ways to be a tease every once in a while, but they never did anything like this. And so, finally, I think I’m on fairly safe ground when I say it.
The Florida State Seminoles are back.
I have to mention another game which made me extremely happy today, which was the victory of my alma mater, les Spartiates du Vieux Montréal, over the hated Vanier Cheetahs. This was Vieux’s second convincing win over “VC” this season. Of course, it won’t mean much if they don’t wrap their great season with a championship, but since the Bol d’Or final is not today, I’m taking a moment to enjoy it.
Between Vieux’s and FSU’s big wins. I don’t want this day to end.