ARLINGTON, Texas – With four minutes left in what began as a waltz and turned into a grind, Jameis Winston decided to risk it.
Florida State held a slippery 30-24 lead over stubborn Oklahoma State. The No. 1-ranked Seminoles had the ball at midfield. Coach Jimbo Fisher called a crossing route to Rashad Greene, because of course he did. The guy who delivered a BCS Championship Game-changing 49-yard play last January was the only logical target here.
"Game’s on the line," Fisher said, "you go to your money guy."
But Greene was well covered as he ran across the middle, causing Winston to pump the ball once and hold it. With tight cornerback coverage and a linebacker dropping into the area, the senior was just barely open.
"I knew it was a tight window," Greene said.
Winston fired into it anyway, continuing his Year of Living Dangerously. On a night when he threw two interceptions that helped keep the Cowboys in the game, the defending Heisman Trophy winner dared a third and jammed the throw in there.
The ball zipped to Greene’s back shoulder, allowing him to catch it and simultaneously spin away from the Oklahoma State coverage. From there he was suddenly in the clear to sprint for the clinching touchdown in a 37-31 victory at AT&T Stadium.
Risk met reward. In less than 12 months he’s been investigated but not charged, cited but not arrested, frazzled but not defeated. Saturday night here, Jameis Winston landed on his feet yet again.
He’s 15-0 as a college quarterback, with no foreseeable end to the winning in sight. But Winston ran off the JerryWorld field with a serious expression on his face, hardly overjoyed with himself or his teammates. The defending national champions escaped with the desired result but some undesirable play that will keep them grounded going forward.
"We got to get better," Winston said. "I told the guys, 'Hey, that’s an eye opener.' [The Cowboys] played their tails off. So we got to go higher."
That starts with No. 5. For only the second time in his career, Winston had more interceptions (two) than touchdowns (one) in a game. The initial pick was his first red-zone interception as a collegian, and the second set up an Oklahoma State field goal to end the first half only down 17-10 after trailing 17-0.
"I had two bad turnovers," Winston said.
But he also had an array of big plays while throwing for 370 yards – third-highest total of his career. He hit three passes of 50 yards or longer, and his 28-yard touchdown run on a quarterback draw will be featured prominently on his personal 2014 highlight reel.
There was a nimble sidestep of one tackler on the run, a leap over a second, and a step over a third. At the end he submarined to the goal line for six. He wasn’t going to be denied.
"He becomes a competitor," Fisher said. "That’s the thing you love when you watch him."
"I saw a lot of jumping and shaking and all kinds of stuff," Greene said of Winston’s run. "He showed his athletic ability."
Problem was, that was twice as long as any other run by the Seminoles all night. Florida State averaged a meager 3.4 yards per rush, and its 106 total rushing yards was the second-lowest output of their current 17-game winning streak.
In the passing game, Greene has become indispensible. He played every offensive snap and had 203 of the Noles’ 370 receiving yards. If he gets hurt, FSU is in trouble.
Defensively, Florida State will need a couple more playmakers to step up. That’s to be expected after losing five of its top six tacklers from last year.
But Florida State’s biggest remaining adjustment is more mental than physical or strategic. Defending a title can be a burden.
The 'Noles have tried to pretend they’re not. They’ve said all preseason that they’re chasing a title, not defending one. They’re hunting, not hunted.
"Hunting something is fun," said running back Karlos Williams. "Why do you think people go hunting?"
It’s not that simple. Saying you’re chasing and hunting, not defending and being hunted, sounds good. But that doesn’t make it true. There are more than 120 teams painting a bull's-eye on the Seminoles’ back, and it seemed clear here that dealing with that fact will require an adjustment.
"This will be a great learning experience for our guys," Fisher said. "It’s not about being great, it’s about playing great. … Last year is over, and tonight I think will help us get over that fact."
The Seminoles probably came away from this feeling like many other teams predicted to be at the top of the 2014 food chain. Second-ranked Alabama, No. 5 Ohio State and No. 7 UCLA all were vulnerable in victory. It’s early, and they all showed how much progress needs to be made to keep winning and remain in the College Football Playoff picture.
The final game will be played right here Jan. 12, which will lead to a lot of full-circle speculation about these Seminoles. The honest truth is that it’s far too early to tell whether they have what it takes to get back here and play for a repeat championship.
But this much we do know: Jameis Winston will give them a great chance to pull it off. He’s still living dangerously, but still landing on his feet, too.
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