- David M. Hale, ESPN Staff Writer
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In a game as good as Monday’s Vizio BCS National Championship, there are countless storylines to dissect in the aftermath. And as Florida State soaks in its third national championship, we’re only beginning to fully appreciate the effort it took for the Seminoles to get here. So while the celebration in Tallahassee continues, here’s a brief look at some of the most underrated storylines from FSU’s absurd 34-31 win over Auburn.
Quest for 1,000, Part I: It was an otherwise uninteresting 4-yard rumble on first down late in the third quarter, but it was one of the most statistically significant rushes in Florida State history. The run put Devonta Freeman at exactly 1,000 yards for the season, making him the first FSU back to reach that mark since Warrick Dunn in 1996 and ending the longest active 1,000-yard rusher drought in college football. Freeman finished the season with 1,016 yards and 14 touchdowns. More importantly, he was a crucial part of the offense when Jameis Winston struggled early Monday, finishing with 94 all-purpose yards and a touchdown.
Quest for 1,000, Part II: Freeman’s 1,000th yard came late. Rashad Greene's came early. The junior wide receiver cracked the mark with the second of his nine catches in the title game, finishing the season with 1,128 receiving yards. He’s the first FSU receiver to crack 1,000 since Anquan Boldin did it in 2002. Greene’s impact Monday was huge. He was the only FSU receiver to catch a pass for positive yardage in the first half, and he was responsible for 40 percent of Winston’s targets in the game. Most significant: He had 57 yards on two catches on the winning drive.
Quest for 1,000, Part III: And if Freeman and Greene weren’t enough, sophomore receiver Kelvin Benjamin became the third FSU player to join the 1,000-yard club with his penultimate grab, a crucial 21-yard catch early in the fourth quarter that set up Florida State’s second touchdown. Benjamin ends the season with 1,011 yards. It was a frustrating game at times for Benjamin, who was shut out in the first half and had two crucial second-half drops that ended drives. His final two catches, however, were essential, including the winning touchdown grab.
Special teams was big: Kermit Whitfield's kick return for a score was obviously a turning point in the game, but it was hardly the only crucial play on special teams. The first half, in many ways, was defined by two momentum-shifting punts. The first, by Auburn’s Steven Clark, pinned FSU at its own 2-yard line. Cason Beatty's punt on the ensuing drive netted just 22 yards, and Auburn scored easily to take a 7-3 lead. Tack on three lucky saves in a row for Auburn after muffed punts, the 15-yard penalty that kept FSU from going for two early in the fourth quarter and, perhaps most significant, a missed 33-yard field goal by Auburn's Cody Parkey early in the second quarter and special teams swung the momentum of the game in either direction again and again. As for Whitfield, the true freshman touched the ball just 25 times in 2013 but racked up 818 yards and four touchdowns.
FSU’s young stars: The three biggest plays in the game for Florida State came from Winston (game-winning TD drive), P.J. Williams (game-saving interception) and Whitfield (game-changing kick return). That trio’s total accomplishments prior to this season: 14 tackles by Williams, largely on special teams. In other words, this veteran team that Jimbo Fisher has been slowly building for years won the national title in large part because of the contributions of three players who’d barely seen the field before the start of 2013. That’s a good sign for 2014 at Florida State, too.
Pruitt’s big adjustment: To open the game, FSU defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt brought pressure on Nick Marshall often, and it wasn’t entirely successful. The Tigers’ QB burned the Seminoles deep on several big plays. But Pruitt adjusted, was more conservative down the stretch, and it worked. Marshall was just 7-of-17 passing with an interception when Florida State brought four or fewer pass-rushers, according to ESPN Stats & Info.
Jernigan’s impact: The stat sheet shows just nine tackles, but anyone who watched Monday’s game knows Timmy Jernigan meant so much more for Florida State’s defense. He was a beast up the middle, shutting down Auburn’s vaunted run game for long stretches and offering next to nothing between the tackles. He clogged gaps and allowed linebacker Telvin Smith to step up and record a game-high 15 tackles. He flushed Marshall out of the pocket repeatedly. Of course, Jernigan was also completely gassed by the end, relegated to the sideline for much of Auburn’s final two scoring drives, and the Tigers’ success without Jernigan in the game was the ultimate proof of what an impact FSU’s under-the-radar defensive tackle actually made.
Winston’s rebound: There were two resounding narratives regarding Florida State entering the game. The first was that Winston, the Heisman Trophy winner, would have a field day against an overmatched Auburn secondary. The second was that the untested Seminoles wouldn’t know how to handle a close game in the fourth quarter. It just goes to show that the pregame predictions often don’t amount to much. Winston’s unwavering confidence this season -- particularly on the prime-time stage -- has been Florida State’s hallmark. The “do it big” speech has been played again and again, but Winston was hardly that guy during the first three quarters Monday. His footwork was a mess. He was off target on throws. He was hesitant to release the ball, choosing again and again to tuck and run. He rarely looked downfield in spite of those supposed mismatches for his receiving corps. And yet, when the game was on the line, the QB who’d thrown just 25 fourth-quarter passes all season rebounded by completing 9 of 11 for 117 yards and two touchdowns in the game’s final quarter.
It really was about his teammates: If there was a mantra Winston stuck to this season throughout all the highs and lows, it was that the season -- and his success -- was built on the backs of his teammates. Monday’s national championship proved him right. While Winston struggled early, so many others stepped up. Freeman moved the ball on the ground. Greene provided a reliable target. Fisher called a brilliant fake punt that Karlos Williams managed to execute perfectly. Whitfield returned a kick for a score. The defense held Auburn scoreless on five straight drives -- forcing a turnover along the way -- while Winston slowly chipped away at a 21-3 deficit. Yes, it was the Heisman winner who delivered the winning drive with 1:19 to play, but it was Greene’s spectacular run after a catch and Benjamin’s unparalleled ability to go up for a ball in the end zone that made the difference. For Florida State, 2013 really was about team, no matter how good (or, in Monday’s case, shaky) Winston was along the way.