More BCS: Barnhart: SEC run ends in Pasadena | Recap | Full coverage
For three quarters in the BCS title game, Auburn held a lead against the undefeated Seminoles. It was not because of destiny, or even solely because of a potent offensive attack led by Nick Marshall and Tre Mason. For most of the game on Monday night, Auburn controlled its destiny because of an impressive showing from the Tigers' defense.
Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson deserves a ton of credit for getting Auburn's defense prepared to face one of the nation's top offenses, led by Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston. Dee Ford, Carl Lawson and the rest of the defensive line did a tremendous job of confusing the Seminoles with stunts and blitzes, getting hits on Winston and sacking him four times in the first three quarters -- tied for the most sacks allowed by Florida State all season.
Auburn's secondary, which ranked No. 61 nationally in pass efficiency defense, complemented the pressure with tough man coverage early in the game. The Tigers successfully disrupted Winston's timing in the passing game, a problem that could only be solved with an adjustment on offense.
Winston, thanks mostly to an impressive effort from the Seminoles' defense in the second half, found a rhythm in the quick passing game. Auburn's pass rush did not have time to get to the Florida State quarterback, and the Seminoles' receivers were able to make plays in one-on-one coverage. None of them were more important than Rashad Greene's 49-yard catch-and-run that led to the game-winning drive. After a short pass, Greene shook off cornerback Chris Davis and safety Ryan Smith and broke free down the sideline for the big game. It was just one of several frustrations for Davis, the hero from Auburn's Iron Bowl victory.
Winston targeted Greene, guarded by Davis, when the Seminoles faced third-and-8 at Auburn's 10-yard line in that same drive. The Tigers' senior cornerback was again beat and this time held Greene, resulting in a pass-interference penalty and first-and-goal for Florida State. On the ensuing play, Winston threw a pass that only Kelvin Benjamin could pull down in the end zone. Chris Davis was again the man in coverage, but he never had a shot against the 6-foot-5 wide receiver.
Auburn's issues down the stretch of the BCS title game extend far beyond one player. The success of the quick passing game forced the Tigers to be less aggressive, and therefore less successful against Winston. It would irresponsible to ignore Kermit Whitfield's 100-yard kickoff return touchdown or P.J. Williams' interception as reasons why Florida State outscored Auburn 21-10 in the fourth quarter, but it did seem like we hit midnight and the Tigers defense turned back into a pumpkin; back into the unit that allowed 5.96 yards per play during the season.
Auburn fielded a national championship-worthy defense for the first 10 drives of the game. Jameis Winston was held to less than 50 percent passing (11/25 for 120 yards) and was sacked four times. In the final two drives, Winston completed 90 percent of his passes (9/10 for 117 yards and two touchdowns) and was not sacked once.
As the confetti fell on the Seminoles in Pasadena, Auburn fans were left with the unsettling feeling that the defense had outplayed expectations and still fell short.