In the final BCS National Championship and a football game for the ages, the highly favored Florida State Seminoles captured the national championhip after staging a dramatic comeback victory over the Auburn Tigers at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena on Monday night, 34-31.
Trailing 21-3 late in the second quarter, Florida State would rally in the fourth quarter, scoring the game-winning touchdown with 13 second remaining. The tense final quarter was reminiscent of the 2006 title game at the Rose Bowl when quarterback Vince Young led a Texas comeback over USC in the dying moments of the game, 41-38.
Like the 2006 game, which involved Heisman Trophy award winners and candidates, the 2014 game featured the Heisman winner and a player who deserved serious consideration.
Quarterback Jameis Winston had his struggles for portions of the game, with the Heisman winner fumbling in the second quarter and often missing his receiving targets against an effective Auburn defense. Meanwhile, the Tigers looked to be in firm control for several stretches of the game behind a stellar performance from running back Tre Mason, who rushed for 195 yards and a touchdown.
Winston, playing on his 20th birthday, showed poise in the final drive, completing six of his seven passes to become the first freshman to win the national championship and the Heisman in the same season. He finished the game with 20 completions on 35 pass attempts for 237 yards and two touchdowns.
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It was the first national championship for Florida State since 2000 and the first under head coach Jimbo Fisher. In his fourth year with the Seminoles, Fisher has won all four of his bowl games to provide an impressive transition from the success of legendary coach Bobby Bowden.
Fisher praised Winston for regaining his form after three difficult quarters to lead a game-winning 80-yard drive that culminated with a touchdown pass to Kelvin Benjamin from two yards.
“We always believed,” said Fisher, who called a fake punt on fourth down and four in the second quarter, which Florida State converted and helped swing the momentum with the Seminoles’ first touchdown.
“It was an unbelievable game.”
There were moments when it appeared the Tigers, who were dubbed “a team of destiny” after some exciting finishes in the regular season, were primed to complete the upset due to some unnecessary errors by their opponents.
A crucial Florida State mistake occurred with 10:55 remaining in the game. An official called an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on running back Devonta Freeman for taunting the Auburn sideline following an 11-yard touchdown pass to Chad Abram, pushing Florida State back 15 yards on the point-after-touchdown attempt. Because of the penalty, Fisher elected to kick an extra point instead of attempt a two-point conversion with Auburn leading, 21-19.
The Tigers managed to overcome some mental lapses of their own. They were able to stay in contention despite multiple punt-return fumbles, recovering all of them.
Quarterback Nick Marshall was efficient in the first half, throwing for two touchdown passes and rushing for a four-yard score to give Auburn an 11-point lead at the break.
It was the fourth quarter that will remain in spectators’ memories. Auburn led 21-13 entering the quarter and each team showed resilience in the final 15 minutes.
Seminoles defensive back P.J. Williams’s interception of a Marshall pass in the early portion of the quarter gave Fisher’s squad a much-needed turnover to keep Florida State’s hopes alive and set up a touchdown.
Auburn’s Cody Parkey would kick a 22-yard field goal with 4:47 remaining, after a steady drive that began on the Auburn 25-yard line and that extended the Tigers’ lead to 24-20. Marshall was able to complete a 26-yard pass to Ricardo Louis and Mason rushed for 30 yards on a possession that lasted more than six minutes.
A 100-yard kick return by Levonte Whitfield put the Seminoles ahead for the first time since it was 3-0 in the first quarter. Whitfield was able to show off his exciting speed, but it was also poor special teams by the Tigers to surrender the lead.
Auburn would respond on the following drive. On third down and 11, and after consecutive impressive stops by the Florida State defense, Marshall found a way to complete a difficult 15-yard pass to Sammie Coates to keep the drive alive. Two plays later, Marshall would find Coates again for 17 yards.
Following a sack by Lamarcus Joyner, Mason would maneuver his way through the Florida State defense for a 37-yard touchdown run to put Auburn back on top, 31-27.
When Florida State got the ball back on their own 20, Winston would target his trusted receiver Rashad Greene on two short passes. The second would victimize the Auburn defense, as the junior split two defenders to sprint to the Auburn 23-yard line.
The Tigers caught a break, though, as a missed horse collar call on Greene’s run would likely have tacked on extra yards and given the Seminoles the ball inside the 12-yard line.
Instead, it provided Winston an opportunity to shine. He would complete short passes to Freeman and Shaw as the clock ticked into the final half minute.
After a blatant pass interference call against Auburn’s Chris Davis, Florida State would capitalize on first and goal when Winston hung a high pass to six-foot-five Benjamin in the end zone for the final score of the game.
It was a painful end for Auburn’s improbable season. The Tigers found a way to win the highly competitive SEC, with tight and unlikely victories over Georgia and Alabama. They couldn’t hold off a Florida State squad that defeated all of their 2013 opponents by more than two scores.
"I told them in the locker room, we put together the biggest turnaround in the history of college football. We were on the brink of making it one of those magical seasons," Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said.
The loss ended the successful streak of SEC programs that had won seven consecutive national championships.
Fisher was quick to point out that the Seminoles were a force that deserved credit following the SEC’s dominance.
"There's a lot of heart and guts down in Tallahassee, too," Fisher said.