PASADENA, Calif. — How did it happen? We're still not sure. There were so many moments when the Florida State Seminoles should've just packed it in, thrown up their arms in frustration, perhaps written it off to another destiny-making performance by the Auburn Tigers.
“This team has heart,'' FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said. “This team has guts.''
When the Seminoles were pushed to the brink, they pushed back.
When freshman quarterback Jameis Winston, celebrating his 20th birthday, dropped back from Auburn's 2-yard line and lofted a pass to the end zone, when Kelvin Benjamin rose high to grab it with 13 seconds remaining, when half of the Rose Bowl stadium roared and the other half gasped, it was officially a game for the ages, one with three lead changes in the final four-and-a-half minutes, one that ended the SEC run of seven consecutive national titles.
FSU 34, Auburn 31.
When the clock finally read 0:00 at the Rose Bowl, when FSU had completed its ridiculously exciting finish with a 21-point, fourth-quarter blitz, when the game had been sapped of all its energy, the Seminoles were national champions.
Who cares if it was an imperfect performance?
The Seminoles (14-0) will be remembered as a perfect team.
Winston will be remembered for finishing off his award-winning season with an exclamation point.
“Great players understand great moments,'' Fisher said. “It's the best football game he played all year. The great ones, even when it's not their night, they still get it done. Very few can pull it out when it's not their night. If that's not a great player, I don't know what one is.''
In many ways, it was a game FSU had no business winning. It was rescued by a 100-yard kickoff return that provided the lead with 4:31 remaining. After Auburn regained the advantage, scoring on Tre Mason's 37-yard run with 1:19 to play, it was left for Winston.
Back came the Seminoles, against all odds, fighting a one-month layoff, the Heisman Trophy jinx, the complacency caused by a season on cruise control, all of it.
And they prevailed.
“It hurts,'' said Mason, who had 195 yards rushing. “I apologize to the Auburn family because we didn't finish what we started. But that's a great team over there in Florida State.''
FSU heroes, large and small, were everywhere. After an uninspiring performance through three quarters, Winston finished 20 of 35 for 237 yards.
On the final drive, he hit Rashad Greene (nine catches, 147 yards) on a 49-yarder. But the key play was third-and-8 from Auburn's 10-yard line. Winston looked to the end zone for Greene, who stretched out. He was pulled to the turf by Auburn's Chris Davis.
FSU had new life from the Auburn 2. That's where Winston found Benjamin.
There was another freshman hero, Kermit Whitfield, one of the nation's fastest players, who received the kickoff at FSU's goal line, then quickly broke left and soared down the sideline, past a pair of Auburn pursuers who seemingly had the proper pursuit angle.
FSU couldn't rest easy, though. After Auburn answered, it needed Winston to mount one final drive. And he did.
It was a marked difference from the first half, when FSU was pushed to the limit.
“We were worried about the scoreboard and not just playing the next play,'' Fisher said.
The Seminoles, who hadn't trailed since Sept. 28, were down by 18 points and perhaps one score away from being embarrassingly run out of the Rose Bowl. They were being severely outcoached by Gus Malzahn. They were unable to contain Auburn's misdirection or protect Winston. Meanwhile, Auburn's 87th-ranked defense had all the answers.
Then it happened.
Then they showed the quality that separates champions from wannabes.
In the finale for the BCS, which often confounded fans with its computer decimal points and poll rankings, FSU registered the system's largest comeback in a championship game, surpassing the riveting Vince Young-led Texas rally past USC in 2006.
This was not Vince Young, who overwhelmed USC that night with his luminescent talent and overcame a 12-point fourth-quarter deficit.
This was FSU finding a way. This was Auburn pulling it back ever so slightly, getting conservative at the wrong moments, probably hoping that the clock would run a little faster. This was finding an initial spark with a fake punt, getting a game-altering interception by P.J. Williams, Winston checking down perfectly to an 11-yard dump-off TD pass to fullback Chad Abram, Whitfield's magnificent return and, of course, the final, fateful drive.
Before the game, FSU players displayed the T-shirts worn under their uniforms.
They read: “Be Elite.''
At times Monday night, that was a test. FSU was hit broadside by a terrific Auburn plan. For the longest time, the Seminoles looked like a team that didn't deserve a championship.
In the end, though, the Seminoles showed their true colors, a garnet-and-gold display of all the right stuff. They were elite, clutch, unforgettable.
“This is a complete football team,'' Fisher said.
Most of all, the Seminoles were perfect.