PASADENA, Calif. — Jameis Winston and Florida State faced adversity for the first time this season, and showed they could take a punch if that’s what it took to win a national championship.
Winston, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, threw a 2-yard touchdown pass to Kelvin Benjamin with 13 seconds left and No. 1 Florida State beat No. 2 Auburn, 34-31, to win the Bowl Championship Series national title game Monday night at Rose Bowl.
“There’s a lot of heart and guts down in Tallahassee, too,” coach Jimbo Fisher said.
The Bowl Championship Series went out with a bang, with one of the best championship games in its 16-year history. And the Southeastern Conference’s seven-year winning streak in college football’s biggest game was snapped.
Winston struggled much of the game but was near perfect when the Seminoles (14-0) needed it most, going 6 for 7 for 77 yards on the game-winning 80 yard drive. A pass interference penalty on Auburn’s Chris Davis gave Florida State a first-and-goal at the 2 and on the next play Winston hit his big receiver, Benjamin, for a touchdown in traffic.
There was no miracle finish this time for the turnaround Tigers. They tossed the ball around on one final play, but it ended with Florida State jumping on a fumble, and the Seminoles sprinting onto the field under a storm of garnet and gold confetti.
Tre Mason had given Auburn (12-2) a 31-27 lead with a 37-yard touchdown run with 1:19 left after Kermit Whitfield had put Florida State in the lead for the first time since the first quarter with a 100-yard kickoff return to make it 27-24 with 4:31 left.
Mason ran for 195 yards and Nick Marshall threw two touchdown passes for the Tigers.
“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.
Winston was 20 for 35 for 237 yards and two fourth-quarter touchdown passes. Florida State hadn’t been challenged like this all season, winning by an average of 42 points.
Winston, a redshirt freshman who turned 20 Monday, told his teammates: “I said ‘Guys, we didn’t come here for no reason.’ I said ‘Y’all, this is ours, man.’ ”
The Seminoles were down, 21-3, in the first half, and wobbling, but never fell over.
And now Florida State is the national champion for the first time since 1999, the first team to win it after being down at halftime.
Winston was jumpy against a strong Auburn pass rush, led by Dee Ford. He was sacked four times.
The Seminoles cut it to 21-10 with a late touchdown in the second quarter and chipped into Auburn’s lead with a 41-yard field goal by Roberto Aguayo with 6:05 left in the third.
Meanwhile, Florida State had found some answers to Auburn’s spread offense. A holding penalty that wiped out a long pass also helped keep the Tigers scoreless in the third quarter, and the Seminoles began the fourth with P.J. Williams intercepting Marshall’s pass and setting up Florida State at its 38.
When Winston tossed in the flats to Chad Abram, who hurdled over a tackler on the way to an 11-yard touchdown the lead was 21-19. Florida State was considering going for two to tie, but Devonta Freeman was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct and that pushed the extra point back 15 yards and forced the Seminoles to kick and make it 21-20.
Auburn responded with its best drive since the second quarter, mixing runs by Mason and Marshall with one big pass to Ricardo Louis. But it stalled at the 6 and Cody Parkey added a 22-yard field goal to make it 24-20 with 4:42 left.