Sports

For Florida State, the season's escapes may pay off in Rose Bowl

Florida State's Jameis Winston: "If they say we're not a good team, OK ... we don't focus on that."

The secret to Florida State's undefeated regular season was actually quite simple.

The message that football Coach Jimbo Fisher delivered to his players at crucial moments — in the heat of seven nail-biting victories — cut straight to the chase.

"Hey, stop messing up," quarterback Jameis Winston recalls his coach saying. "Go out there and do what you do."

The third-ranked Seminoles have arrived in Pasadena for the Rose Bowl with a 13-0 record, just like last season. But this time, as they face second-ranked Oregon in a semifinal of the new College Football Playoffs, their situation has flipped.

In 2013, they rolled into the national championship game defeating opponents by an average of 42 points. People wondered whether they were battle-tested enough to win the title.

This season, the defending champions' average margin of victory has shrunk to 12 points, with narrow escapes coming against middling competition such as Miami, Boston College and Florida.

"They did nothing special," Miami tight end Clive Walford said after the Seminoles slipped past his team by four points in mid-November. "We just beat ourselves."

The Florida State roller coaster began at the end of last season when the Seminoles needed the biggest comeback in Bowl Championship Series title-game history to defeat Auburn.

This fall began with a close game against Oklahoma State and continued with comebacks against North Carolina State and Louisville. Much of the college football world — in other words, those outside of Tallahassee — viewed Florida State as lucky to stretch its winning streak to 29 games.

"If they say we're not a good team, OK," Winston said. "We just keep playing and we just love this game so much, we don't focus on that."

The 2013 Heisman Trophy winner's reduced production has contributed to Florida State's struggles. His touchdown passes are down from last season, his interceptions are up. His completion percentage has slipped a notch.

Watching game film, Oregon defenders see him forcing passes.

"Sometimes when you're a playmaker, you want to always make plays and don't let the game come to you," Ducks cornerback Troy Hill said.

But there might a bright side to those harrowing escapes.

Meeting with reporters this week, Florida State players have exuded a confidence born of clutch victories. They have forged a new identity, shifting from dominant to unflustered.

If anything, the journey has made them more confident than ever in their leader.

The physical skill and fierce competitiveness that sometimes gets Winston into trouble have helped him scramble and throw for big plays with the clock ticking down.

His coaches see him remaining patient with young receivers prone to rookie mistakes. They see him making better decisions with each week that goes by.

Three completions without out a miss translated into a winning field goal with three seconds remaining against Boston College. A key scramble and a 16-yard pass to tight end Nick O'Leary set up another winning kick in the Florida game.

Others have contributed. Freshman running back Dalvin Cook had two game-winning touchdown runs and, on defense, freshman linebacker Jacob Pugh clinched the Notre Dame victory with an interception in the end zone.

"We play our best when we're under pressure," O'Leary said. "It's instinct, I guess."

The Seminoles don't necessarily make huge adjustments in the fourth quarter. They just seem to do the normal things better.

"A guy makes a play, slips a tackle," Oregon defensive coordinator Don Pellum said. "You see their competitiveness down the stretch."

That could be scary for an Oregon defense that is ranked No. 82 out of 125 teams playing top-level college football. The Ducks stumbled late against UCLA, giving up three fourth-quarter touchdowns in an otherwise convincing victory.

"For us, what we have to do is stay focused and we've got to keep firing," linebacker Derrick Malone Jr. said. "Keep playing, keep playing and not give up."

History has shown that teams with a knack for getting by, like Florida State, can ultimately win it all.

Ohio State did in 2002. Auburn survived a string of close games before taking the national championship in 2010. The team the Tigers beat for the title?

Oregon.

Still, the oddsmakers have their doubts, listing Florida State as the underdog in Thursday's game even though the Seminoles have not lost since November 2012.

Trying to put things in perspective, Winston resorts to a simple analysis of his team's chances — as straight as one of his coach's halftime speeches.

"We don't feel comfortable when we're losing … it just feels awkward," he said. "So we feel like we've got to get on top somehow."

david.wharton@latimes.com

Twitter: @LATimesWharton

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