TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- For just a moment, forget everything else. Forget the preceding week. Forget the preceding year. Savor the now.
Saturday night at Doak Campbell Stadium. Fourth-and-goal from the Florida State two-yard line. Seventeen seconds to go. Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson in the shotgun. The Seminoles lead by four. After this play, one team will win. One team will lose. We don’t know which is which. In the bowl behind the end zone, the assembled thousands don’t look as if they’ll jump from the stands. They look as if they’ll jump from their own skins and float over the field in either celebration or mourning. They scream. Oh, do they scream.
Fighting Irish center Matt Hegarty snaps the ball. Golson catches it. He throws. It’s in receiver Corey Robinson’s hands. The Notre Dame sideline erupts. The Irish fans huddled in the opposite corner of the stadium embrace. Everywhere else, people in garnet and gold lace their hands behind their heads, elbows flared out. Surrender Cobras, the Internet calls them.
There’s a flag.
The yellow cloth was in the air before Seminoles safety Jalen Ramsey waved his arms and begged for it. The seeds of the flag were planted two quarters earlier when Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher told the officials to watch the pick play. On that would-be touchdown, an official saw a pick. Notre Dame’s C.J. Prosise had wiped out Ramsey. On a run play, Prosise’s block would have drawn raves from his coaches. Had he been trying to spring Robinson’s father, David, the play would have ended in a dunk. But on a forward pass caught beyond the line of scrimmage, driving a defender in coverage five yards down the field is frowned upon. “We execute that play every day,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly says later. “And we do it legally. And that’s the way we coach it. We don’t coach illegal plays.”
The officials disagree. Offensive pass interference, according to referee David Epperly. Repeat fourth down.
This time fourth-and-goal comes from the 18. Those thousands beyond the end zone swipe a chant from a fútbol team, hoping to inspire a football one. I believe! I believe that! I believe that we! I believe that we will win! This time, Golson takes the snap. He looks. He looks. He looks. He moves through his progressions in the way Fighting Irish coach Brian Kelly wished three days earlier that he would. But no one is open. Golson throws toward the back of the middle of the end zone. The only player there is Jacob Pugh. He plays linebacker for Florida State. He catches the ball. He’s out of bounds. It doesn’t matter.
Seminoles quarterback Jameis Winston takes a knee. Then he screams. Then the ‘Noles pile on top of one another. It’s over. They’ve won 31-27. Offensive tackle Cam Erving grabs the ball. The ball boy known as Red Lightning tries to take it from him. Erving holds it tighter, and he weighs 308 pounds. The ball is meant for Florida State offensive line coach Rick Trickett, the tiny former Marine who teaches 300-pounders like Erving to dance and to maul. Trickett didn’t coach on Saturday. He had to go to the hospital for a heart issue. He’ll be fine, according to those close to the team. When Trickett spoke to Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher before the game, Trickett was not fine. He wanted to be with his players in the most important game of their season. “He broke down. He cried,” Fisher says. “And that man don’t cry over nothin’.”
Afterward, some Seminoles try to play cool. They act as if their hearts didn’t clog their throats when Robinson caught that ball. “We said, ‘We’ve got that ball again.’ Let’s go out there and score,” offensive guard Josue Matias says. They would have had 13 seconds to maneuver for a game-tying field goal. “They gave us too much time,” says Winston, who went 15-of-16 for 181 yards with a touchdown in the second half as the Seminoles came back from a 17-10 halftime deficit.
Some don’t play it so cool. Receiver Rashad Greene cracks. “It was an emotional roller coaster,” says Greene, who caught eight passes for 108 yards with a score. Some feel vindicated. Florida State dropped from No. 1 in the polls a week ago without losing a game. Though most Seminoles say they don’t care, linebacker Terrance Smith clearly does. “Hopefully, we can get that No. 1 spot back,” he says. “They took it from us, so we had to win this game.”
Inside that moment, with Golson hunting an open receiver and the clock ticking, rankings don’t matter. The College Football Playoff doesn’t matter. The play matters, because it will result in a win or a loss. Everything else will flow from that.
The Seminoles got the win. Barring an oddity, the likelihood of which we’ll discuss in a few paragraphs, they’ll be favored in every game they play between now and December. If they keep winning, they’ll make the playoff. If Notre Dame keeps winning, it may also have proven on Saturday night that it belongs in the playoff. The Irish walked into one of the nation’s toughest venues, against one of the nation’s rudest hosts, and came one play short. Next time, they might make it.
The moment only lasts so long, though. Eventually, reality intercedes. It does, like the well-timed record scratch in all those old sitcoms, when Florida State media relations director Kerwin Lonzo offers a warning before Winston’s interview session. “Good evening,” Winston says. Before anyone can ask a question, Lonzo says this: “Hey, guys, just remember, he’s talking about the game.”
Yes. About the game. Not about the autographs, which produced a lot of copy this week but were never going to produce any missed playing time because no one told Florida State or the NCAA that they paid Winston to sign things. That is the key difference between the situation surrounding Winston and the one surrounding Georgia tailback Todd Gurley. A man told Georgia compliance officials he paid Gurley to sign items. That prompted a suspension. But that doesn’t matter in the grand scheme. Public opinion has shifted with regard to players profiting from their fame, and selling autographs likely won’t be against NCAA rules within 10 years.
The other thing matters more. Winston never was charged criminally after a woman accused him of raping her in December 2012, but Winston still faces a hearing over potential violations of Florida State’s student code of conduct. Depending on how the hearing goes, Winston could potentially be suspended or expelled, which would, for all intents and purposes, end his time on Florida State’s football team.
The hearing is not a criminal court proceeding. The accuser needs only a preponderance of the evidence and does not need to prove anything beyond a reasonable doubt. She may ask him questions, but he may not ask her questions. Anything Winston says in the hearing could be used by state attorney Willie Meggs -- should he decide to re-examine the criminal case -- or by the accuser in a civil case. Read about the ways this justice system differs from the court system and ask yourself: If you were Winston’s attorney, would you allow him to participate?
The hearing date has yet to be set. Be assured that Winston’s legal team will try to delay it past the football season. That way, it won’t matter because Winston will be off preparing for the 2015 NFL draft. He won’t be a Florida State student anymore. Politically, Florida State probably can’t allow that delay, so expect Winston’s legal team to fight for a delay in court in Florida’s second judicial circuit. That may or may not produce the desired result.
There are so many questions going forward, but there are no ready answers. Those will come in time, but as Saturday bleeds into Sunday, all we know is that two teams played one play that decided the most thrilling game of the season. Florida State won that play, so Florida State won the game.
“That,” the Seminoles’ Matias says, “was a classic.”