Florida State's 31-27 win over Notre Dame on Saturday night was more than a matchup of Top Five teams. Much more.
This was a game that paired two storied teams that are operating under dark clouds. Two programs with Everest-like profiles that, by virtue of colliding on the field, also brought more attention and hype to each other’s flaws.
Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston is under scrutiny regarding whether he was paid for autographing more than 2,000 items that showed up for sale on a website. And last year, although no charges were filed, he was accused of rape. Then there's the profanity-laced rant in public on campus that got him suspended for the Clemson game on Sept. 20.
Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson is back in the Fighting Irish huddle this season after sitting out last year because of academic fraud. That’s the same misdeed that led to the suspension of five Notre Dame players this season while an investigation continues (DaVaris Daniels, Ishaq Williams, KeiVarae Russell, Kendall Moore and Eilar Hardy).
Both teams entered undefeated but also were perceived to be battling some on-field flaws, too.
Florida State already had trailed at halftime in two games, indicating a big drop in talent by the defending national champions, who had six players taken in the first four rounds of the last NFL draft. And they would trail at halftime again, 17-10.
With a schedule that has the toughest games backloaded, Notre Dame had yet to be overly impressive. It needed a last-minute touchdown to beat Stanford, and its reputation for defense was seriously harmed last week after giving up 43 points to North Carolina.
So yes, the No. 2 Seminoles and the No. 5 Fighting Irish really needed a game Saturday night that put the emphasis back on how their football teams perform on the field.
They got it and then some during the 31-27 Florida State victory that gave the Seminoles their 23rd consecutive win. This one came down to the final minute. It will be remembered as a duel between two quarterbacks who, despite their issues, still could finish first and second in the Heisman voting.
Notre Dame’s final march had luck of the Irish written all over it, but that script was undone by an offensive pass interference call that negated what would have been the winning touchdown on a wide-open, two-yard pass from Golson to Corey Robinson.
Even so, a game-changing call by the refs didn’t undo all of the drama that these two teams built for 60 minutes. Notre Dame’s final drive included Golson improvising with a mad scramble and clutch completion to convert on 4th-and-18 to stay alive.
Winston thrust himself back into the Heisman conversation with a near-perfect second half in which he was 15-of-16 for 181 yards while leading three touchdown drives. The sophomore spent all night dragging his team out of the ditch as Notre Dame grabbed leads on four occasions, only to see Winston rally FSU to tie three times. He took ultimate control with a 10-play, 75-yard drive that gave the Seminoles their first lead with 7:39 left in the fourth quarter.
Having already lost its No. 1 perch in the polls, FSU was in danger of tumbling out of the College Football Playoff picture. It doesn’t wipe away Winston’s autograph controversy, but it does give the kid yet another signature victory.
Golson also may have seen his brand rise nationally, even if his desperate final toss of the night ended up in Seminole hands. On a final drive that began with 2:53 left, he took his team inside the FSU 10-yard line with 46 seconds remaining. The hope-killing penalty was called with 11 seconds left, but Golson still had reason to leave with his head held high.
He finished with 313 passing yards to Winston’s 273 and took an upstart team that was expected to be overwhelmed to the threshold of a major upset.
Both quarterbacks faced their share of adversity.
Winston ended the game thriving, but he spent most of the first half just surviving amid constant breakdowns by the FSU offensive line. The Irish blitzed from every direction and clearly had the FSU offense confused.
Trailing 17-10 at the half, the Seminoles had rushed for a mere 19 yards, and their final total of 50 wasn’t much better. Yet they overcame a 470-323 deficit in total yards because of Winston’s pinpoint passing in the second half.
Golson disappeared into the locker room during the third quarter, no doubt stressing Irish fans to the maximum. But he soon came sprinting back and fought off leg cramps the rest of the way.
Notre Dame now joins the ever-growing ranks of elite but once-beaten teams, but it may have seen its stature grow by taking FSU down to the wire, on the road.
The nation also got a prime-time introduction to Corey Robinson, son of NBA great David Robinson. The younger Robinson hauled in a pair of touchdown catches and also was on the receiving end of that 4th-and-18 conversion.
The final bit of drama came when FSU coach Jimbo Fisher embraced Winston amid the celebration and turned quarterback whisperer while softly telling his player, "Don't give them that over-exuberant look. Act very passive right here and get people back on your side. You understand what I'm telling you? Humble. Humble pie."
We’ll see if that advice sinks in.
Meantime, like a great showdown between heavyweights, this one instantly begs for a rematch. It’s not unthinkable that could happen in the playoffs, given the way top teams have been falling the last two weeks. And if it does, just imagine the hype we’ll have the next time around.
Tom Weir covered college football as a columnist for USA Today.