PASADENA, Calif. — He was a record-setting freshman. He captured the Heisman Trophy. And he had won every game this season.
But Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston found his missing ingredient in Monday night's 34-31 insane rally against the Auburn Tigers at the BCS Championship Game.
It had been too easy. Nearly every week, FSU opponents were on the business end of predictable blowouts. Some games, Winston barely played in the second half. The statistics were superb, but deep down, you wondered if they were truly meaningful.
The Seminoles hadn't been tested. They hadn't trailed in a game since Sept. 28. They had mostly mopped up on some ACC lightweights, while also beating the likes of Bethune-Cookman and Idaho.
Winston needed a come-from-behind performance like he displayed Monday night at the Rose Bowl. It was the final validation for a freshman season like no other we've seen.
When Auburn running back Tre Mason bulled for a 37-yard touchdown run, the Tigers regained the lead, 31-27. Auburn's special teams promptly smothered FSU kickoff returner Kermit Whitfield at the Seminoles' 20-yard line.
Time remaining — 1:11.
“I was ready,'' Winston said. “I wanted to be in that situation, because that's what great quarterbacks do. That's what the Tom Bradys, the Peyton Mannings and the Drew Breeses … that's what they do.
“Any quarterback can go out there and perform when they're up 50-0 in the second quarter. That (game-winning drive) is what you're judged by, especially by your teammates. I'm pretty sure I got more respect from my teammates and the people around me on that last drive than I got the whole year.''
There was a swing pass to Rashad Greene for 8 yards, then another quick strike to Greene, who raced down the right sideline for 49 yards. Then a couple of short tosses to Devonta Freeman and another to Kenny Shaw. There was the end-zone pass-interference call, positioning FSU at Auburn's 2-yard line.
And then, with 13 seconds remaining, there was the game-winner, an under-pressure toss, a sure-handed leap by Kelvin Benjamin and a touchdown.
Overall, Winston was 20-of-35 for 237 yards and two touchdowns.
His fourth-quarter stats: 9-of-11 for 117 yards and both TDs.
“Magnificent,'' FSU running back James Wilder Jr. said. “He was in complete control. He was laughing and joking in the huddle. He was feeling it. I knew he could do it.''
Through three quarters, I wasn't so sure.
It looked like Auburn's night. Gus Malzahn dialed up an excellent offensive game plan, and Auburn's 87th-ranked defense had its best performance of the season, sacking Winston four times.
Auburn rolled to a 21-3 lead and seemed on the verge of blowing it open.
The so-called Heisman jinx again looked like a reality. With Winston struggling and maybe failing to deliver the championship victory, it would have been easy to justify a Heisman recount. Perhaps Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel would have been more fitting? Or Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater?
Or certainly Mason, who powered to 195 rushing yards and broke Bo Jackson's single-season record at Auburn.
For someone with such an accomplished season, heading to Monday night's fourth quarter, Winston had a lot to prove.
And prove it he did, with a stunningly effective performance.
“Auburn was mixing things up, and they got some pressure on him,'' FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said. “We had a few drops. We were pressing.
“I think this is the first time this year we got outcome-oriented. We were worried about the scoreboard, not just playing the next play. That's part of learning as a young player. But to be able to adjust on that day, still get back and be great, to me, that's big time.''
During FSU's final practice in Tallahassee, Winston was working the two-minute drill, but not to Fisher's liking. Perhaps to prove a point, Fisher kicked Winston off the field.
“Tonight, we won the game in the two-minute drill,'' Winston said proudly.
Before the game, FSU coaches were asked if Winston could improve his game. Of course, they said. But really, after making it look easy in rout after rout, everyone was fawning over Winston's football ability. He had not seen true on-field adversity, though.
So Monday night, in many ways, was the making of a quarterback.
Fisher said he will savor FSU's national title — briefly.
“In two days, I want to get ready to go win another one,'' he said.
It won't be the same team. The Seminoles will lose some seniors (and underclassmen) to the NFL draft. The schedule will be more difficult.
But FSU still has Winston — loaded with talent and now brimming with confidence.
Monday night was Winston's 20th birthday. Now he truly has something to celebrate. As a quarterback, he has come of age.