Three and Out: Jameis Winston, Florida State rally to top Louisville
1. This game had plenty of drama
Florida State players, coaches and administrators should all earn honorary doctorates in drama this season. Each week seems to out-do the next. When the police are circling, the Title IX investigators attempting to (finally) investigate and the opponent jumps out to a three-touchdown lead, that’s when Florida State finds clarity on the field. In a hostile environment, trailing 21-0 and facing the No. 1 defense in the country, the Seminoles continue to exhibit their defining trait – the ability to escape from trouble. When Florida State should be falling apart at the seams, it somehow becomes a juggernaut.
Led by two long second-half touchdown runs by Dalvin Cook – 40 and 38 yards – the No. 2 Seminoles escaped despite a strong performance from the Cardinals. It was an impressive win dotted with just enough luck. Florida State recovered a fumble in the end zone for a touchdown and quarterback Jameis Winston negated one of his three interceptions by a forcing a fumble. Most importantly, the 'Noles overcame a series of injuries that decimated their linebacker unit before the game.
Florida State’s ability to outrace trouble is, if anything, perplexing. Winston’s litany of off-field issues – one very serious rape accusation and a host of other poor decisions – have clung to the program for nearly a year. This week, police drew interest into two off-field incidents involving starting tailback Karlos Williams, a domestic case and a drug deal turned violent. This came days after coach Jimbo Fisher lauded Williams as an “ambassador” for the university.
The Seminoles couldn’t even hold a walk-through without it becoming a national story. The tone-deaf coaching staff held its practice at a Louisville public park, then dispatched some minions to try and prevent pedestrians from taking photos.
Florida State's countless off-field issues have obscured its brilliance on it. The Seminoles have won 24 consecutive games, but instead of discussing their on-field greatness, the conversation usually revolves around whether the police will arrive at practice. The discussion isn’t about Winston and his 22-0 record as a starting quarterback, it’s about Title IX investigations and what embarrasses the university administration to be embarrassed enough to act.
Winston again played his best with everything falling apart around him, finishing with 401 passing yards and three touchdowns to offset his three interceptions.
Florida State started to gather itself when Winston relaxed late in the first half, finally putting together its first crisp possession. Crisp until Nick O’Leary recovered a Williams fumble in the end zone to cut Louisville’s lead to 21-7. The TD capped a six-play, 78-yard drive that restored FSU’s mojo and gave it some momentum headed into halftime.
That momentum should have immediately dissipated when Winston was intercepted on the first play of the second half. But Winston recovered by forcing a Gerod Holliman fumble that the Seminoles recovered. Florida State lost that possession on downs, but scored on a 68-yard pass to Travis Rudolph and a 40-yard untouched rush from Dalvin Cook to cut the Louisville lead to 24-21 by the end of the third quarter.
That set the stage for a Thursday classic, with the team’s trading fourth quarter leads until Florida State did what it does best – run away from trouble.
2. How does the win affect Florida State’s playoff standing?
A loss would have dropped the Seminoles out of the Top 4. But the comeback gives the Seminoles another critical victory over a team ranked in the Top 25 of the college football playoff. And anyone watching Louisville tonight would be unwise to argue that it is not a Top 25 team. Now that star receiver DeVante Parker is healthy, Louisville has a dimension that it did not for the first seven games of the season. One NFL scout called Parker, a 6-3 senior who finished the game with 214 receiving yards, the best player on the field Thursday night.
This is Florida State’s third good win of the year, joining its nail-biting victories against Clemson and Notre Dame. (Sorry, that Oklahoma State game was wise to schedule, but the Cowboys look like they’ll struggle to be bowl eligible this year).
Even with no precedent for the playoff committee, it’s easy to predict that FSU is cemented at No. 2 until Mississippi State loses.
Florida State is 8-0 with games against unranked Virginia, Miami, Boston College and Florida remaining. FSU will likely be double-digit favorites in all of them. What made this victory so imperative is that FSU doesn’t have another chance to impress on this type of stage against this caliber of opponent.
Sorry, the ACC title game doesn’t count.
3. Already divisive, Jameis Winston will become even more polarizing
The buzz about Jameis Winston’s professional future isn’t going to be about whether he can play in the NFL, like Tim Tebow back in 2010. A more apt comparison would be Randy Moss or Dez Bryant, obvious first-round talents with glaring off-field questions. Everyone knows Winston is good enough to be a first-round pick. While his uneven performance Thursday didn’t blow anyone away, Winston still ranks slightly behind Oregon’s Marcus Mariota in terms of pure quarterback talent eligible for this draft.
The debate about Winston could be just as loud within the NFL front offices. There were 34 NFL scouts in attendance at Louisville Thursday, which is pretty much the biggest personnel gathering you can find outside of the NFL Combine.
Veteran Louisville public relations maven Kenny Klein said it’s the most scouts that have ever attended a game here. What makes the heavy scouting presence fascinating is that 10 NFL general managers/lead personnel decision makers were in attendance.
Klein said that 30 scouts attended Louisville’s game against Miami on Labor Day night, but only three general managers (weeknight games are usually more heavily scouted since there are fewer weekday games).
So what quarterback-needy team could be pondering picking Winston? St. Louis, Tampa Bay and Tennessee all appear to be in the quarterback market, and perhaps led to Les Snead, Jason Licht and Ruston Webster making in-person appearances. The Steelers and Vikings could end up in the quarterback market and had general managers here. (The other general managers in attendance were from the Colts, 49ers, Patriots, Chiefs and Browns).
They were left with plenty to chew on, as Winston again dazzled when it mattered most.