Bigger than one man: Florida State learns it can win without Winston

Florida State beats Clemson 23-17: Seminoles learn they can win without Jameis Winston.
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Florida State quarterback Sean Maguire trudged off the field on Saturday pretty sure he’d just lost Florida State the game, the division, the conference and the national title. Receiver Jesus “Bobo” Wilson had popped open, but Maguire’s pass settled into the hands of Clemson safety Jadar Johnson. The Tigers had the ball on the Seminoles’ 26-yard line with 2:14 left in a 17-17 game.

“I had Bobo over the middle of the field,” Maguire said after a 23-17 overtime victory he never would have dreamed of in that moment. “He was open. I overthrew him. It was a pretty sucky feeling. Luckily, it’s a team sport.”

Indeed. It is a team sport. Good teams come together when one of their members screws up. Maguire made a few bad throws on Saturday, but he wasn’t Florida State’s biggest screw-up this week. Not even close. That was the other guy. The guy who should have played instead of Maguire. The guy who makes everything look so easy except behaving.

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That other guy blew it again last week. On Tuesday he screamed sexual vulgarities in public in an attempt to mimic an Internet meme. In the locker room, that act would probably draw laughs. In a vacuum, it would net him a few extra gassers, a few headshakes and little else. But he doesn’t live in a vacuum. He lives under a microscope. And he has a history. There was the thing with the BB gun. There was the thing with the water cups at Burger King. There was the thing with the crab legs. There was the big thing -- the rape accusation that generated no criminal charge but did generate suspicion and a Title IX investigation from the university.

That other guy knew what would happen when he opened his mouth, and he did it anyway. His parents are good people who taught him right from wrong, so Tuesday’s outburst means one of two things. He is either stupid or he doesn’t care. Everyone who has met him and everyone who has coached him raves about his ability to grasp intricate football concepts with minimal instruction. He breezed through high school with excellent grades. He is not stupid. Which means one thing. When he opened his mouth, he didn’t care about anyone but himself.

He shouldn’t care about what columnists and talking heads think. He shouldn’t care what the fans think. He should care what his teammates think. They are the ones he let down. They covered for him anyway and kept all their dreams alive. Had the Seminoles lost, it would have been that other guy’s fault. He should have been out there on Saturday, but what choice did Florida State officials have? They had to do something or get skewered for coddling their best player again. He was suspended for a half. When he wasn’t entirely forthcoming with the interim president and the athletic director, they extended the suspension to the full game. On Friday night.

That’s when Maguire learned he would go the distance against Florida State’s top competition in the ACC Atlantic Division. If the Seminoles played in the SEC West, they might be able to make the first College Football Playoff even if they don’t win their division. But they don’t, and right now it’s tough to imagine the playoff selection committee giving an ACC team that didn’t win its division a chance to play for the national title. That other guy’s timing couldn’t have been worse.

Luckily, it’s a team sport.

sad clemson

Maguire did the best he could with limited practice reps. He threw two interceptions and got sacked five times. But the Sparta, N.J., native didn’t mind. “I got hit a lot in high school,” he said. He also threw for 305 yards with a touchdown. That other guy helped Maguire on the sidelines, guiding him through coverages and plays. Still, Maguire had to do it on the field. He sank low and rose up in the span of two fourth-quarter plays. On first-and-10, Corey Crawford dropped Maguire for a loss of 14 yards. On second-and-24, Maguire found Rashad Greene streaking down an empty right sideline for a 74-yard score that tied the game at 17. “It was two polar opposites -- what not to do playing quarterback and what to do,” Maguire said.

Earlier, it was Greene -- who barely makes a peep most of the time -- who stood before his teammates at halftime and said what needed to be said, because football is a team sport and the Seminoles weren’t acting like a team. “Rashad is not a man of many words,” Maguire said. “He’s usually just that leader by example. He just stood up and called everyone out. He told everyone to start waking up because this is the season right here.”

And it was. It could have gone down the drain. Clemson had discovered something special in freshman quarterback Deshaun Watson, who relieved Cole Stoudt after four series. Tigers coach Dabo Swinney had reaffirmed before the game that Stoudt was his quarterback, but Swinney likely won’t make that affirmation again. Watson is special. He has the tools to be great. Just like that other guy.

But Clemson didn’t put the Seminoles away when it had the chance. Even after Florida State roared from the locker room, energized by Greene’s halftime speech, and blazed 68 yards in nine plays for a touchdown, the Tigers still had the edge. That other guy wasn’t coming off Florida State’s sideline, even if he had come out fully dressed for pregame warmups before he was told to strip off his pads by exasperated coach Jimbo Fisher.

Luckily, it’s a team sport.

For three quarters, Florida State’s defensive line had been pushed around in a way it hadn’t since a loss to Florida in 2012. Defensive end Mario Edwards Jr., the 300-pound freak who can chase down quarterbacks from behind and do a backflip in pads, missed the second half with a concussion. Someone else would have to rise. Someone did.

Defensive tackle Eddie Goldman, still hobbled by a sprained ankle suffered two ago earlier against The Citadel, decided to fulfill his five-star destiny. Remember when Maguire threw that second interception? Remember when it was all but over? It didn’t end there because when Goldman lunged to tackle C.J. Davidson on a second-and-two play from the Florida State 18-yard line, Goldman felt his hand the ball. “I just kind of ripped at it,” Goldman said. And it just kind of popped out. And Florida State safety Nate Andrews just kind of jumped on it. And on the sideline, Maguire just couldn’t believe it.

The Seminoles ran out the clock to force overtime. Then the defense took the field. Suddenly, Clemson faced fourth-and-inches from the Florida State 16-yard line. Watson handed to Adam Choice. Goldman blew a hole in the line, and Choice had nowhere to go. Chris Casher and Reggie Northrup swallowed him up behind the line of scrimmage.

Luckily, it’s a team sport.

The offensive line and backs, who had combined to produce -12 rushing yards (including sacks) in four quarters, pushed open holes that produced 25 yards and a touchdown on two Karlos Williams runs. After Williams crossed the goal line, the Seminoles swarmed the field. Everyone. Including that other guy.

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Later, Fisher would read from a sheet loaded with talking points, his voice cracking because of something that cannot be encapsulated by a talking point. He had not said the words that caused the trouble. The other guy had. But Fisher is paid handsomely to deal with the fallout of such acts. He is also paid to make his players believe their program is bigger than one person. Had they lost, he would have had a hard time looking them in the eye and saying that.  

“I’m unbelievably proud of them,” Fisher said. “You know we challenged our guys to find out who we are.” And they did. They are a team. A team with flaws on the field and off, but a team nonetheless. The players still love that other guy. Some are upset with him. That was apparent when Greene and Edwards criticized him on ESPN shows beamed across the country. But he is still their teammate. On Monday, Fisher said, that other guy will be their quarterback again. And maybe he’ll lead them to another national title. Thanks to them -- and not thanks to him -- he’ll get that chance.

“I’m not talking about Jameis,” tight end Nick O’Leary said when asked if the team felt any lingering resentment. But that’s all anyone wanted to talk about. Maybe the prodigal quarterback will learn something from this. Maybe he won’t. His teammates learned something on Saturday, though. They can win without him.