College football has a rich tradition in which the Heisman winner is selected from one of the land's best teams, he goes into the title game and faces a gameplan geared around his every weakness, and he crumbles. On Monday, January 6, that nearly happened again.
Auburn stymied the Florida State offense for three quarters before ultimately succumbing to Jameis Winston with a minute to go and 80 yards behind them to defend. For his end-of-game accomplishment, Winston was named the game's MVP, and the narrative focused around his "clutch" performance in securing the victory for the heavily favored 'Noles.
For the game, Winston completed 20 of 35 passes for 6.8 yards per attempt, well off his season average of 10.5 yards per attempt. He threw two passes into the end zone, narrowly avoided throwing any interceptions, and was sacked four times.
The normally explosive Seminoles offense managed only 385 total yards and 27 points for the day, but they were rescued by a kick return for a touchdown and the play of their own defense which kept the game in reach. The real MVP for FSU was its total team athleticism and quality within every unit.
Okay fine, you can give the award to the quarterback if you really want to.
FSU's overall athleticism allowed the Seminoles to create the opportunity for their star QB to get going late in the game. It rescued 'Noles fans from the dreadful prospect of an offseason filled with catcalls from the SEC's numerous and loud proponents.
How did it unfold?
Both teams' defenses looked to attack the QB position and more or less found success doing so.
One particular area where Winston will likely look to grow in 2014 to protect his draft standing and improve his chances at finding success in the NFL is his work in the film room.
Auburn typically drops safeties late to form pattern-matching Cover-3 schemes and mixes it up with typical Cover-2 and a variety of blitzes. It's a fairly simple system, but the Tigers are great at disguising these looks thanks to their willingness to ignore getting caught up moving chess pieces to get the best matchups in their front.
Winston struggled early with the Auburn disguise and was frequently baited into either a) attempting throws into Cover-2 when expecting a blitz or C3, or b) throwing a C2 beater against Auburn's aggressive Cover-3.
In this example, Auburn shows a zone blitz with the inside linebacker attacking the middle, then dropping back to take away potential hot reads. Auburn still gets good pressure with four, a reoccurring theme throughout the night, but Winston's quick checks over the middle are taken away, and he's brought down.
Backed up on the goal line and attempting to stay ahead of the chains, the Seminoles run an "all curls" concept and find themselves against a five-man Auburn blitz backed by aggressive-matching Cover-3:
After an unsuccessful run sets up third-and-10, Auburn shows a linebacker blitz only to rotate into a version of Cover-2. Winston attempts the deep out for the first down and finds the corner leveraged to bat the ball away.
Auburn tended to lean on Cover-2, and when they could put Florida State in obvious passing situations, they relied on the pass rush of their front four, though they did mix in blitzes and single-high safety looks as often as they dared in order to keep Winston from zeroing in.
This was largely effective and prevented the dynamic Seminole passing game from landing the haymakers that normally dispatched their opponents. The 'Noles were also stymied a bit by their own offensive coaching staff deciding to have Winston rush as often as lead running back Devonta Freeman. FSU's attempts to use option and draws to WInston were largely ineffectual, and while Freeman had 6.6 yards per carry, he only got 11 attempts to punish the aggressive Tiger defensive line.
Of course, when the 'Noles were able to protect, Winston was able to get up to his usual tricks. Here, he calmly eyes the safety and nails the deep out on third down.
Meanwhile, the FSU D implemented its own plan of attack for handling the Auburn run game and preventing the kind of explosive output that buried Missouri.
Jeremy Pruitt and the Seminoles chose to control Nick Marshall in the run game and invite Auburn to beat them pounding the middle of the line with Tre Mason. To do this, they frequently brought edge blitzes to the read side and trusted not only Timmy Jernigan and Mario Edwards to clog the interior, but also their athletic secondary to clean up messes and require Auburn to get its points the hard way.
In this instance, they bring both LaMarcus Joyner and Terrance Brooks off the edge. They would crash the unblocked read player after the RB, which would trigger a give read by Marshall, then have another DB blitzing the edge to tackle him if he kept it.
Joyner is so quick that despite being unblocked and read as a "DE" on the play, he's still able to squeeze down and impact the play. Jernigan is the real hero, as he gets his hands inside the center, resets the line of scrimmage, and then comes off the block in the playside gap to make the tackle.
Big Greg Robinson did little wrong in this game to hurt his draft standing -- he smashed a Seminole DB on Auburn's RB screen touchdown early in the game -- but Jernigan and Edwards successfully prevented Auburn from dominating the line of scrimmage as they had in so many SEC contests throughout the year.
LaMarcus Joyner helped his own draft standing as well, finding himself up to the task of playing the nickel against Auburn's big personnel groupings and finishing the game with five tackles and a share of a sack playing in this essential role controlling the edge. Observe his sack, in which he comes on one of these blitzes, and Marshall tries to punish him for diving at Mason by pulling the ball.
I believe NFL defensive coordinators will find a use for an athlete with elite change of direction like that, however short he is.
The complexity of the Florida State defense punished them when they got lost in the tempo and gave up a few big opportunities for Auburn in the passing game. The linebacker corps in particular struggled to lock down the middle of the field and protect the seams against the Auburn passing game.
However, by holding Marshall to 2.8 yards per carry and 45 total rushing yards, they eliminated a key cog in the Auburn attack. Mason finished with 195 yards, and the Tigers landed some blows in the passing game, but the combined 15 tackles by Jernigan and Edwards, 3.5 of which were behind the line of scrimmage, stalled Auburn from getting its offense humming strongly enough to put the 'Noles away.
That allowed this to occur:
At a crucial juncture in the game, there's little disguise by War Eagle defense. They play Cover-2, and the 'Noles run double-in routes to the weakside of the field. The Will linebacker is late to notice the second in-breaking route, in part because Winston has his eyes trained on the linebacker to prevent giving any clues.
He fires a pinpoint pass to Rashad Greene, who then explodes through the CB and WLB and covers much of the needed yardage before the safety can (illegally) bring him down.
That's what much of Florida State's success looked like this season. Winston perfectly executing the basic throws of the Seminole offense and allowing his loaded receiving corps to destroy the opponent with yards after catch.
Everyone's seen the completed play-action toss to Kelvin Benjamin that Musberger had projected the entire game, but Florida State cemented the game on third-and-8 by running the "Dallas" concept that defines much of Fisher's offense.
The focal point of the play is typically the trips side, where TE Nick O'Leary is running an option route. But again Winston attacked the weakside, where Greene was strategically placed. This time the No. 2 receiver breaks outside and draws away the safety who has come up to play man coverage. Greene gets upfield before breaking inside without molestation from a linebacker or the weak safety.
The deep safety is occupied with O'Leary and Benjamin parked on the opposite end of the formation, and the corner has little choice but to interfere in what will otherwise be the winning touchdown pass. Auburn had disguise going on this play but simply couldn't out-execute Winston and the Seminole passing game consistently enough to ice the game.
It was a brilliant final drive by Jameis Winston and company to be sure, but it would have been useless without the ability of the D to take away a huge part of the Auburn run game, without the special teams touchdown, and without the protection Winston had from his line when it really mattered.
Put it all together, and you have a great win for the best and most complete team in the 2013 season. Congratulations to the Seminoles.