Friday, February 23, 2018

Winston again just finds a way to get a win


It was late in the evening, and goodness knows, it was past time for something special.

The night felt all wrong. Florida State was sputtering, and quarterback Jameis Winston was spewing, and Oklahoma State had taken on the look of a Hollywood underdog. A 17-point lead had dwindled to three, and even that felt like a deficit.

This is how you defend a national title?

This is how you defend a Heisman?

This is how you live up to the preseason polls that have declared you the best in the nation?

What it felt like, to be honest, was trouble. What it looked like was an upset in the making.

In other words, it was the perfect time for the magic to return to Winston, the way it always seems to return to him. Once again, the ball was in his hands, and once again, he was daring the world to stop him. And once again, it could not.

There were five minutes to go in the third quarter when Winston dropped back to pass, and suddenly, he was running with the ball. He weaved through defenders for 18 yards, and he vaulted a fallen FSU lineman. He was hit inside the 5-yard line, but he stretched out and crossed the goal line just before he fumbled.

Just like that, order was restored. A little later, Winston hit Rashad Greene on a 52-yard touchdown, and FSU had a 37-31 victory, and Winston had his 370-yard night.

"That's the thing about him you love," Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher said. "Even when he's not playing his best, he's a competitor: 'I've got to run and hit someone.' "

Here's a question: How many Heisman votes does a guy get for a salvage job?

It had not been a keeper night; not for FSU and not for Winston. His statistics looked as if he had a better night, but often, Winston seemed flummoxed by Oklahoma State.

After the first quarter, he hit only 11 of his next 23 passes, and he threw two interceptions, and there for a while, all thought of repeating as a Heisman Trophy winner seemed like fiction.

But that's the thing about great players. They are greatest when their team needs it the most. They find a way. They make a difference.

If you want to take something away from Saturday night's game, that's a good place to start.

For most of the night, this was a different Winston than the one who spent his freshman year in the highlight reels. You kept waiting for it to click, the way it did in last season's national championship game. But the longer the night went, the more you wondered if it was ever going to happen.

But it did.

With Winston, 15-0 and counting, it always does.

If nothing else, Saturday night's rough ride was a bit of a warning for Winston. It won't be easy this year. It doesn't matter if Winston's hips are better or if his eyes see more or if he knows the offense better. In college football, things change from one season to the next. The ball bounces differently. Fate falls in love with other teams.

Understand, then, what Winston was feeling during those second and third quarters. His team could not run. The field position was awful. Drives kept stalling.

Meanwhile, Oklahoma State — too good a team to be a 19-point underdog — kept hanging around. For an underdog, that's how hope is created. By hanging around.

But this is Winston's time, and this is his team, and if the plays down the stretch matter, this might yet be his season.

Yes, there is pressure on him; as much as there is on anyone in college football. Another player can complete a 1-yard pass on third and 3, and everyone will shake their head at the receiver. With FSU, they look to Winston. When a guy has one Heisman on his bookshelf already, the fans always look to Winston.

It's the price of all of those trophies.

If there is going to be a difference between Winston the freshman and Winston the sophomore, that might be it.

Look, Winston isn't the first quarterback to chase a second Heisman Trophy. And it is telling that no one has done it. Not Roger Staubach of Navy or Sam Bradford of Oklahoma, who were both hurt during their final seasons and finished out of the top 10. Not Tim Tebow of Florida or Matt Leinart of USC or Jason White of Oklahoma or Ty Detmer of BYU, who all slipped to third. Not Johnny Manziel, who fell to fifth.

Nothing is harder to photocopy than success. Nothing is more difficult to repeat than greatness.

Remember, last year, Winston threw for more than 4,000 yards and for 40 touchdowns. A lot of things have to go right in that kind of a season. Will they all go right again?

We'll see. Yes, Fisher will tell you Winston will be just fine, but Tebow and Detmer and Leinart were fine, too.

The thing is improvement isn't just up to him. It's up to his offensive line. It's up to his backs. It's up to his receivers. It's up to his defense.

Ah, it was simpler in last year's opener, wasn't it?

Back then, no one knew what to make of Winston, who walked out in the opener against Pitt and hit 25 of 27 for 356 yards and four touchdowns.

This year? Everyone knows Winston.

He is the most well-known college football player in America, which is true whether you judge him by his success or by the scandals that have followed him around.

It is fair to say he is the most charismatic player in the country, and he is the most controversial. Neither of those is likely to change any time soon.

The truth of it? The truth of it is Winston is a very good football player.

On the other hand, even a magician needs a little help now and then.

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