The word — if not an overused one — is reflexively chosen in the wake of a dramatic and close sporting event of appreciable significance.
Many ordinary sporting events — played at a mediocre or slightly above-average level for the duration — might be graced with a classic finish or a classic moment, but a classic game? In order to attain “classic” status, the majority of the game needs to be played above the clouds. Two teams need to showcase their best stuff for more than a little while. Everything about a team needs to be tested; achievements need to be magnified because of the effort and resistance put forth by the opposition.
That’s what a classic game brings to the table, generally speaking. It’s not easy to attain such status; after all, if a commentator is quick to label everything a classic, how can the true masterpieces in any sport secure their place at the mountaintop?
It’s not a word that should be quickly and easily bandied about in the wake of a sporting event… unless you’re certain about the matter and do not need to mount a robust defense of your position.
Enter Notre Dame-Florida State 2014.
QUARTERBACKING QUALITY AND ENDURING IDENTITIES:
WHY IRISH-NOLES EXCEEDED THE HYPE
Why does Notre Dame-Florida State pass the major tests of a classic sporting event, and not just for reasons attached to the juicy subplots, the hero-and-villain narratives, and the subtexts which encircled this game at just about every turn?
First, this was a physical game. This was not a contest defined by powder-puff hitting or matador defense. Georgia Tech and North Carolina played a thoroughly entertaining shootout Saturday night, but the tissue-thin nature of each team’s defense made the achievements of each offense less noteworthy and therefore not as special. Notre Dame’s and Florida State’s offenses didn’t enjoy uninterrupted prosperity on Saturday, especially in the Seminoles’ case. Both quarterbacks were bothered in the first half when they traded interceptions, displaying the kind of frailty which could have oh-so-easily led this game down the path to mediocrity.
Therein lies a core reason why this game managed to attain classic status: Everett Golson and (especially) Jameis Winston regrouped after their brief stumbles.
Florida State’s front four continued to force Golson to move out of a comfortable place in the pocket, and the leader of the Fighting Irish’s offense proved to be up to the task. His fourth-and-18 conversion on Notre Dame’s final possession was the stuff of legend… also the stuff of survival, which is precisely what Golson learned how to do in the 2012 march to the BCS National Championship Game against Alabama.
Think back to that 2012 season for a moment. Notre Dame found itself in very tough spots against Stanford, BYU, Oklahoma, and Pittsburgh in particular. Golson, faced with fourth-quarter deficits, didn’t merely lift his team out of trouble; he did so after struggling for much of the first three quarters in most of those games (not so much against Oklahoma, when he was fairly consistent). Saturday night, Golson crafted a very strong performance, as one would expect from a man who didn’t take a physical pounding last season (only a pounding from mentors and media critics for the mistakes that cost him an autumn on the gridiron) and was therefore physically fresh entering 2014. Yet, his elusiveness in the pocket and his accompanying penchant for situational playmaking had only improved relative to 2012. Golson, as a player, fully met the moment. He was deprived of glory not by a mistake he made, but by the offensive pass interference call that will hang over Irish-Noles as long as this game is talked about.
As well as Golson performed, Winston — though clearly worse in the first half — was undeniably better in the second half. This is, one must hasten to say, not in any way a reflection on Golson’s limitations; it’s only a measurement of the extent to which Winston allowed his talents to emerge in full and resplendent brilliance.
The Kansas City Royals’ bullpen has been pitching to near perfection this October, and in the second half against Notre Dame, Winston — following a rough first half in an uneven season — found that same zone Wade Davis and Greg Holland have attained in crunch time on the diamond.
A 15-of-16 masterclass after halftime represented the very kind of “climb on my back” lifeline an elite quarterback gives to his teammates on both sides of the ball in a main-event showdown. Winston played the position as well as it could be played, making Jimbo Fisher’s decision to run the ball three times in the final five minutes that much more baffling. It was, ironically and quite strikingly, the only time Florida State and Fisher have not trusted Winston over the past few weeks and, on a larger level, over the past 14 months.
The Seminoles got away with Fisher’s mistake. As a result, Winston’s second half — in victory — will receive full recognition for what it deserved to be: a season-defining moment for a legitimately great collegiate athlete. Say what you want about off-the-field questions; they’re best reserved for other times and places. On the field, Jameis Winston enhanced his place in the larger story of college football. It was hard to top Everett Golson on this night, and one could argue that the two played to a relative draw over the course of 60 minutes. At the very least, however, Winston was not the second-best quarterback on the field. That is impressive in its own right. Winston’s ability to answer each of Notre Dame’s scores in the second half will only heighten the discerning football connoisseur’s appreciation for what he achieved Saturday night.
The other main reason why this game deserves to stand on its own as a college football classic is that these teams remained in touch with their identities. It’s not as though this game spun sideways in a manner which forced these teams to be anything other than what they are, what they want to be.
The 2012 Notre Dame season was very much a case study similar to the 2002 Ohio State Buckeyes. Notre Dame did not blow a lot of teams out of the water, winning a lot of tight contests that didn’t unravel into shootouts. It’s true that Notre Dame did beat North Carolina a week earlier by a 50-43 score, but that was an aberration. The Irish, under Brian Kelly, had developed a tendency to play close games against teams with varying levels of skill. Recall Stanford, BYU, and Pittsburgh all threatening Notre Dame in 2012. This is not too different from 2002 Ohio State, which tiptoed past Purdue and Michigan, among other teams, before barely beating mighty Miami in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl.
This season, especially in October, Notre Dame has managed to fit that same identity — playing close games no matter the opposition. The Irish, following a close low-scoring win over Stanford and then a close high-scoring win over North Carolina, settled into another evenly-matched encounter, but this time it was against Florida State in Doak Campbell Stadium. Kelly’s Irish have that ability to marshal just enough emotional resources for each individual game. An occasional romp over Michigan might surface, but the cardiac conclusion is something this program mastered in 2012, and it was one play (one call) away from mastering another moment in 2014.
Notre Dame’s resolute quality, embodied by the step-up performance of Tarean Folston at running back (120 yards on only 21 carries), remained very much intact, and that fighting spirit lent this clash a strong dose of personality. More specifically, Notre Dame showed that even as the years come and go, programs — especially under certain coaches — can and do retain personalities, as though the same human person is taking the field in manifestly different situations. Such is part of the magic of college football. Notre Dame brought a lot of wondrous spells and potions to the Florida panhandle.
Florida State, of course, remained true to its on-field identity as well, an identity shaped in the fires of that 21-3 deficit to Auburn in the 2014 BCS National Championship Game.
Ever since Jimbo Fisher faked that punt against Auburn, Florida State — so transcendently dominant for most of the 2013 season — has become something quite different from the casual conqueror of college football. No longer strolling above the fray with imperious form, the Seminoles have been enmeshed in desperate deathmatches. Like Notre Dame in 2012 and previous weeks in this season, Florida State has learned how to survive ever since its escape from Auburn in Pasadena.
A furious charge by Oklahoma State in week one? Surmounted.
No Winston and a seven-point fourth-quarter deficit against Clemson? Surmounted.
A 24-7 first-half deficit and a 38-28 second-half deficit against North Carolina State? Surmounted.
Notre Dame’s best punch, the Irish’s blitz packages on defense, and Everett Golson’s most complete performance of the season? Surmounted, complete with yet another fourth-quarter comeback.
It’s so easy to step off the treadmill that one time, to think that it’s not going to be your night, to cave under the weight of enormous pressure and national scrutiny. Florida State was continuously given chances to crack by Notre Dame. The Seminoles, as is their habit these days, refused to buy into those kinds of possibilities. With Travis Rudolph providing much-needed help to star receiver Rashad Greene, and with a challenged offensive line doing what it took to give Winston just enough space to work his second-half magic, the Seminoles — aided by Fisher’s halftime adjustments — found the finish line first… again.
The Noles are Novak Djokovic in his astonishing 2011 tennis season. They are the San Francisco Giants in an even year. They are the San Antonio Spurs. They are the New England Patriots whenever someone dares to doubt Tom Brady.
They are the toughest regular out in their sport. They met an opponent’s best game. They eclipsed it.
Maybe by a hair’s length, but they eclipsed it.
Does all of this sound like the stuff of a college football classic?
The better question might be this: If Notre Dame-Florida State 2014 wasn’t a classic, where are you drawing your lines? Those lines are probably much too high for normal people to grasp.