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A Seminole moment: Florida State wins thrilling BCS finale, 34-31

Jameis Winston's TD pass to Kelvin Benjamin with 13 seconds left caps Seminoles' rally for wild win over Auburn in last title game of BCS era.

January 06, 2014|Chris Dufresne
  • Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston is congratulated after leading the Seminoles to a last-minute victory over Auburn in the BCS national championship game on Monday night at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.
Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston is congratulated after leading… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)

Until the fourth quarter Monday night, USC versus Texas in 2006 was considered the greatest college football game in the 16-year Bowl Championship Series era, maybe ever.

Move over, Trojans and Longhorns, you have company.

Eight years later, on the same Rose Bowl field, in the last BCS game ever, Florida State rallied from 18 points down to defeat Auburn, 34-31, before a worn-out crowd of 94,208.

The winning score came with 13 seconds left, on a two-yard scoring pass from Jameis Winston to Kelvin Benjamin.

SUMMARY: Florida State 34, Auburn 31

It came in the same south end zone where Vince Young defeated USC with his dazzling last-minute run.

"Winston to Benjamin" now becomes one of the all-time pass-and-catch phrases in Florida State history.

How did the Seminoles do it?

"We had the ball last," Coach Jimbo Fisher said, and boy, was he right.

Winston, this year's Heisman Trophy winner, struggled for much of the game but drove his team 80 yards in seven plays to cap a remarkable freshman season.

"I was ready," Winston, who fumbled earlier in the game, said of the last drive. "I wanted to be in that situation. That's what great quarterbacks do."

Winston won the national title on his 20th birthday and became the first freshman quarterback to win a BCS title.

Because his team had been so dominant, Winston had not led a game-winning drive all season — until now.

"It was the best football game he played all year," Fisher said. "For three quarters, he was up and down. He fought and fought. Anyone can do it when it's their 'A' game night. . . . If that's not a great player I don't know what one is."

Winston finished 20 for 35 for 237 yards with two touchdowns.

It was Florida State's second BCS title but first since the 1999 season.

The Seminoles (14-0) capped the school's second undefeated season, with former coach Bobby Bowden in the house. Bowden always lamented he never got to coach a big game in the Rose Bowl. Well, at least he got to watch one.

Florida State's win was remarkable on several fronts. The Seminoles overcame the greatest deficit to win in BCS history. Texas trailed USC by 12 in the fourth quarter in 2006 rallied for a 41-38 victory.

The Seminoles also snapped the Southeastern Conference's seven-year streak of BCS titles. The SEC still finished with nine titles out of 16, but could not close the BCS era with the bookend to Tennessee's win in 1998.

"There's some other folks in the country that can play football too," Fisher said.

The game unfolded backward.

The prevailing theory was that Auburn, a double-digit underdog, needed to scratch and claw to have a chance. Florida State had not trailed in a game since late September against Boston College.

Auburn was the "team of destiny" that had defeated Georgia and Alabama on miraculous, last-second plays.

If only Auburn could keep it close, the experts said, maybe the Tigers could steal the game late.

In fact, Auburn jumped to an early 21-3 lead and Florida State had to scratch and claw, with a chance to steal the game late.

The Seminoles stole it with 13 seconds left, capping one of the most frenetic closing quarters in college football history.

With 10:55 left, Winston tossed a short touchdown pass to Chad Abram to cut the Auburn lead to 21-19.

Florida State could not go for two to tie, however, because Devonta Freeman was called for a "taunting" penalty at the end of the score.

The play loomed large over the rest of the game after Florida State kicked the extra point to still trail by one.

Auburn quickly drove down the field but Florida State's defense made an important stand to hold the Tigers to a field goal.

Everyone knew what was coming next: Winston, with six minutes left, was going to get his chance to lead a game-winning drive.

His moment was delayed, however, when teammate Levonte Whitfield returned the ensuing kickoff 100 yards for the go-ahead score.

"Obviously, we didn't cover it very well," Auburn Coach Gus Malzahn said.

Whitfield, a freshman from Orlando, is listed in the team's media guide as a "dazzling freshman who could be the fastest player in the nation with the ball in his hands."

Auburn could attest to that.

Whitfield gave Florida State the lead with 4:31 left as Seminoles fans started to celebrate a win that had not yet been secured.

Had they not seen Auburn play this season?

The Tigers treated Whitfield's return as a minor distraction as they raced back down the field toward what they thought was their destiny.

Tre Mason knocked the game off its axis again when he ran 37 yards for a touchdown with 1:19 left, bowling over defender Jalen Ramsey at the 15-yard line.

OK, Mr. Winston, time for your close-up.

Whitfield returned his next kickoff try only to the 20, setting up the 80-yard drama that will be retold for years.

"We wanted to win," Winston said. "We had to win."

The first big play came when Winston hit Rashad Greene for 49 yards to the Auburn 23.

Winston worked his team all the way down to third and three at the Auburn five, with 21 seconds left, only to get penalized five yards for delay of game.

On third and eight, Winston threw incomplete in the end zone for Greene, but Auburn cornerback Chris Davis was called for a pass interference penalty.

That set up Winston's game-clinching connection.

"I apologize to the Auburn family," a distraught Mason said after his team lost to finish 12-2. "We didn't finish what we started."

Mason needed to apologize for nothing after gaining 195 yards in 34 carries.

Auburn didn't lose one of the best games of the new century — it just ran out of time.

chris.dufresne@latimes.com

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