Florida State downs Florida as programs head in opposite directions
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The proclamation prefaces every interview Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston gives now. He'll only answer questions about an upcoming game or the game he just played. On Saturday, after a 37-7 win at Florida that wasn't as easy as the final score suggests, here was the first question a reporter asked Winston.
Was this a hard day for you?
"A hard day?" Winston asked, seeking clarification. It would be foolish and intellectually dishonest to attempt to jump inside the mind of Winston at that moment, but a 19-year-old performing on a huge stage with a rape accusation and an accompanying investigation by the local prosecutor hanging over his head probably has a few thoughts about what is difficult and what is easy. Still, it's a waste of time to speculate as to what those thoughts are. We don't know anything about the case other than what the various parties' attorneys want us to know, and we won't know anything more until state attorney Willie Meggs decides whether to charge Winston with a crime or close the investigation. We now know Winston has had run-ins with law enforcement before -- and what might have been previously passed off as boys-will-be-boys incidents look different through the prism of the accusation -- but we still don't know what happened early on the morning of Dec. 7, 2012. We could try to discuss how all that might affect the Heisman Trophy vote, the national title race and Winston's psyche, but it wouldn't do any good because there just isn't enough publicly available information.
As it turns out, the "hard day" query was actually a football question. For all their stumbles and injuries this year, the Gators still have some excellent defenders. They still know how to pressure a quarterback, even one who plays behind an offensive line as talented as Florida State's. So for about 25 football minutes on Saturday, Winston faced a real pass rush for the first time since the occasional Aaron Donald breakthrough in the Seminoles' season opener at Pittsburgh. At first, Winston didn't handle it well. He threw an early interception and took some savage hits. But he wasn't totally out of sync. He threw what should have been a long touchdown pass in the first quarter, but receiver Kelvin Benjamin dropped it.
Winston, who is known for getting in teammates' faces, kept his cool with Benjamin. He told him he'd come back to him. As it turned out, Winston had been trying to boost Benjamin's confidence all week. At a team meeting earlier this week, the Seminoles engaged in a practice they call "Catfishing." Basically, one player calls out a teammate and challenges him. This week, Winston chose the 6-foot-5, 234-pound Benjamin.
"I said, 'KB, you are an unstoppable force. If you go out there and do what you've got to do, you will be unstoppable and no one can cover you,'" Winston recalled. "I told him in front of the whole team: 'No one can cover you.'"
Winston was correct. Playing against potential 2014 first-round cornerback Loucheiz Purifoy and potential '16 first-rounder Vernon Hargreaves III, Benjamin atoned for that drop the rest of the afternoon. He finished with nine catches for 212 yards and three touchdowns. On the first touchdown catch -- a 45-yarder with 4:24 remaining in the first half -- Benjamin caught a Winston pass across the middle and made Florida's Brian Poole, Jabari Gorman and Jaylen Watkins bounce off him like pinballs on the way to the end zone. That play capped a 96-yard drive that Florida State was in position to finish only because Winston hit Kenny Shaw for a 27-yard gain on third-and-26 after Shaw hung through a clean-but-bone-rattling hit by Gators safety Cody Riggs. After that drive, moving the ball became easier for the Seminoles. "Offense is about rhythm and timing," Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said. "And once we got that we kind of just loosened up and things started to flow." Said center Bryan Stork: "We just kept pounding away. We knew eventually they'd give in."
It didn't hurt the Seminoles' offense that Florida's defense only got an average of 4.8 plays to rest between series. Some credit for that stat certainly goes to Florida State's defense, which has been dominant all season. But Florida, which hasn't had a semblance of an FBS offense since October, is more responsible. This season, injuries claimed the Gators' top two quarterbacks, their best tailback and four offensive line starters. But other teams have fought through injuries. All year, Florida's offense seemed bereft of imagination and lacking in talent relative to the rest of the SEC. "Just didn't have enough bullets in the gun today," Gators coach Will Muschamp said after the game. On this point, Muschamp overrated his armory. When Florida's offense matched up against Florida State's defense, the Gators brought a stick to a nuclear missile fight.
How has Florida's season gone offensively? The following anecdote sums it up nicely. The Trey Burton Wildcat package finally worked for a 50-yard gain in the first quarter. In their next four plays, the Gators lost a yard and missed a 49-yard field goal. They gained only 36 yards from that point until their final drive of the third quarter -- when they scored a touchdown to cut Florida State's lead to 20 points. The team that lost to Georgia Southern -- a mediocre FCS team -- last week was finally put out of its misery not long after.
Before the game, Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley reiterated his support for Muschamp. "We haven't made an excuse all year, and we're not going to make them now. We know what this program is all about," Foley said. "I have total confidence in coach Muschamp and have made that clear. We've got to fix some things. When you have seasons like this, that's what you do -- you evaluate, you analyze and you fix things. You don't panic. You don't put orange and blue glasses on."
Foley insisted the program is in a better place now than it was in 2004 when he fired Ron Zook. Zook was 20-14 when he was fired following a loss at Mississippi State in his third season. After three seasons, Muschamp is 22-16, but he does have one BCS bowl appearance following an 11-1 regular season last year. Foley said the offense must be fixed, which means offensive coordinator Brent Pease will likely be out of a job sooner rather than later, but Muschamp will get another year.
There are two ways to look at Florida's slide, and Saturday's opponent offers a convenient measuring stick. The dark side? Saturday showed how far the Gators have fallen behind Florida State, which can likely clinch a berth in the BCS title game by beating Duke next week in the ACC championship in Charlotte, N.C. The bright side? The last team to beat Florida State was Florida, so maybe a program's fortunes can turn that quickly.
For now, Florida State stands astride the Sunshine State with an eye on proving itself the best in the nation. Winston has played as well as any quarterback in the country, and that's about all we can say with certainty about him until Meggs completes his investigation. Saturday may have been a hard day for Winston. It may have been an easy one. That's not a football question, and at the moment, those are the only kind he'll answer.
"I'm not worried about my day," Winston said. "I'm worried about the team's day. And we got a victory. A big victory."