Jameis Winston was the player most responsible for leading Florida State to a national title eight months ago. He can’t be accused of costing them a shot at a second straight title with his misdeeds.
Not after Saturday’s wild outcome at Doak Campbell Stadium.
With the Heisman winner serving a one-game suspension for uttering “vulgar and offensive” comments earlier in the week, the top-ranked Seminoles pulled out a dramatic victory, defeating No. 22 Clemson in overtime, 23-17.
Karlos Williams rambled in for the winning touchdown from the 12 as FSU — without its star quarterback calling the shots — still managed to stun Clemson.
The victory extended the No. 1 Seminoles’ winning streak to 19 straight and kept their repeat title hopes alive.
"It didn't look like it was going to be there," FSU head coach Jimbo Fisher said of the nail-biter.
Wearing black sweatpants, his garnet jersey and a baseball cap that he waved in the air to excite the crowd, Winston was reduced to cheering from afar.
The sideline became his jail cell.
The timing could hardly have been much worse for FSU.
Florida State wasn’t going against The Citadel. This was Clemson, the same team the Seminoles destroyed a season ago in Death Valley.
Clemson was no pushover on Saturday, though. And they didn’t have Winston to contend with.
Fisher acknowledged that the Winston situation had become a "distraction" that impacted the way the Seminoles played.
Winston was suspended originally for the first half only. But late Friday, university interim president Garnett S. Stokes announced that the suspension had been increased to all of Saturday’s game.
The reason: Winston hadn’t been completely truthful to school officials in their probe when he gave his side of the story.
“Based upon the results of our continuing investigation of Tuesday’s incident involving Jameis Winston, we have decided to not play him for the entire game against Clemson on Saturday night,” Stokes and FSU athletic director Stan Wilcox said in a prepared statement.
It was hard for FSU players to keep track of what was happening with each new development involving Winston.
"It was pretty crazy," said FSU cornerback Ronald Darby. "At first he was supposed to be out a half. Then, the day before, he was out the whole game."
So Winston didn’t play the first half.
He didn’t play the second half.
And he didn’t play in the overtime.
Winston’s absence was tangible early.
With Sean Maguire at the helm, the Seminoles struggled to generate yardage, mustering only four first downs and 84 total yards in the first half. The ‘Noles were held without a first-half touchdown, something that had never happened on Winston’s watch, and trailed at halftime, 10-3.
It was the first time Florida State had trailed in a regular-season game since they fell behind Boston College last September.
Maguire was by far not the only problem for Florida State. Clemson stuffed the run, holding the Seminoles to minus-22 yards rushing in the first half.
But the Seminoles took the second-half kickoff and marched 68 yards to tie it on Mario Pender’s 1-yard run.
Clemson was primed to regain the lead late in the third quarter, taking the ball to Florida’s State’s 1. On second down, though, the snap sailed over the end of Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson, and the Tigers came up empty-handed on the drive when Ammon Lakip missed his second field goal of the game.
Maguire and the Seminoles moved the ball better in the second half and were making progress down the field when the redshirt sophomore threw into a crowd and was intercepted by Jayron Kearse. It was the first turnover for either team, and it proved costly to Florida State.
Watson found Mike Williams on a 39-yard completion that put the ball at the FSU 2 and the quarterback took it in from there to go up 17-10.
The Seminoles struck back, however, catching a significant break when Clemson cornerback Mackensie Alexander stumbled and fell as he was trying to cover Rashad Greene on a deep route. Left open, Greene came down with Maguire’s long pass and raced in for a 74-yard touchdown.
When Maguire was intercepted a second time late in the fourth quarter, Clemson took over deep inside FSU territory, driving to inside the 20. Only the Tigers shot themselves in the foot, and instead of scoring the go-ahead points, lost the ball on a fumble.
That sent it to overtime.
After Clemson was stopped on a fourth-and-one, Florida State took over and won on their second play from scrimmage in the overtime.
Now the latest Winston saga is behind them and he'll be back on the field for Florida State when they face North Carolina State next week.
"Now he's served that punishment and he's ready to move forward," Fisher said of Winston. "Our hope and belief is Jameis will learn from this and use better judgment. It was a tough week. We're ready to move on."