PITTSBURGH -- Pitt shouldn’t have had to play host to Florida State redshirt freshman Jameis Winston’s coming out party on national television for its first game in a new conference, but someone had to usher in the prelude of the next great Florida State quarterback.
This is the ACC we’re talking about. Nothing makes sense, there’s no such thing as fair, and the league is constantly making it up as it goes along. Pittsburgh learning that sooner rather than later isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Winston spoiled the Panthers’ ACC debut as the Seminoles won, 41-13, and exceeded every possible expectation anyone could have had of him along the way. He finished the day 25-of-27 (a school-record 92.6 percent completion percentage) for 356 yards and four touchdowns to go along with 25 rushing yards and a score against a Pitt defense that ranked 45th in defensive F/+ a year ago.
“It’s one ballgame guys,” FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said. “He played one game. That’s it. But he did a great job. As long as he keeps the process in mind and keeps working with great habits, everything’s going to be fine, and that’s what he has to do. It’s not about age. It’s about habits. If you have good work habits, you get results if you have ability.”
Winston started the game 11-of-11, and his only incompletion of the first half was caught a step out of bounds. He was crisp on his delivery, showed some wheels, and his play fakes were downright filthy.
As the “oohs” and “aahs” coursed through the press box and Twitter exploded, something quickly became clear: we aren’t just seeing a capable replacement for EJ Manuel on the Seminoles; we might be witnessing history.
“I knew this guy since freshman year out there on scout team was making plays,” cornerback Lamarcus Joyner said. “Fifth-year senior EJ Manuel wasn’t making throws like that, and I said to myself this guy’s going to be special. Like you saw tonight, he did pretty great for it being his first game.”
Pittsburgh coach Paul Chyrst has done an admirable job restoring calm at a program where there was none, and there is real potential here, on the field and in the growing fan base. Pittsburgh is a proud sports city, and it is looking for any excuse to get behind its college team.
The Panther faithful and Chryst will just have to look for that excuse somewhere else in a game that seemed destined to showcase Winston.
“Towards the end of the night when they told us the numbers,” FSU wide receiver Kenny Shaw, who had four catches for 94 yards, said, “it was like, ‘Dang, he balled out.’ But I’m proud of him.”
The worry with any freshman quarterback is he will try to do too much, but Fisher’s game plan left Winston plenty of room to make good decisions while not taking away his natural improvisation. Some of those throws are going to get the Seminoles into trouble down the road, and some of those scrambles could end badly.
But you’d always rather have a guy who can make those plays, and you take your chances as you watch him develop.
It was important to get Winston some work in pressure situations as early as possible, as the FSU schedule doesn’t pose a bevy of challenges until the showdown with Clemson in Death Valley on October 19. By then, we’ll know if the ‘Noles are a true ACC contender.
And a lot of that starts and ends with Winston.
“Every time I step in the huddle the offensive line is looking at me with their mean looks,” Winston said, “and I have to be calm for them. They have to see it in my eyes, just like ‘Hey this guy, he’s ready to do it.’ Then I gotta look at my team and it’s like, ‘It’s time to go.’”
Whether or not the Seminoles and their freshman phenom will have a shot at a conference title will depend on the winds of ACC fate. And we all know those winds can send a team off course faster than you can say Odysseus. If Winston's journey is going to live up to the hype, he’ll have to have a short memory and sail on.
Welcome to the ACC
Pitt seems strangely excited to join the ACC, which is a breath of fresh air for a conference that has taken its lumps over the last few years. The Panthers are hanging ACC signs all over Heinz Field and on campus and have wholeheartedly embraced their new league. There was a ceremony before the game where flag bearers trotted out each individual team’s flag, the fans booed half-heartedly (and with gusto when the Notre Dame flag was presented) and the band spelled out ACC during halftime.
While the Atlantic Coast doesn’t immediately bring Pittsburgh to mind, the school fits right in with regards to its student body, academics and campus, not to mention a strong tradition in basketball.
“They definitely fit in because as you see those guys are physical,” Joyner said. “It definitely was a dogfight. The scoreboard doesn’t always determine how the game was played. Those guys are very physical and they’ll do pretty well in this league.”
Chances are the Panthers will make a nice addition, and Chryst’s squad will upset a team or two along the way.
I had the pleasure of spending a couple hours with the Internet’s own Spilly, and he showed me around the tailgating lots and the outside of the stadium. He told me the school has had trouble drumming up new traditions since the team moved off campus to play its games at Heinz Field, and most attempts have been met with a bit of a laissez-faire attitude.
The most repeated phrase was "It’s sterile," which doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement. The first thing would be a better way of getting students here -- right now they have to take a city bus or school buses in from campus -- and establishing some consistency on the field. When a team wins, traditions organically spring up. Here's hoping the Panthers start winning, and new traditions take the place of campy borrowed interests like playing “Sweet Caroline” after the third quarter.