“And Auburn is stung by its own medicine!”
Jan. 6, 2013, while going as a great portion of America hoped, had not gone as most of it expected. No. 1 Florida State, offensive and defensive juggernaut throughout the season, had fallen behind significantly in the national championship to upstart No. 2 Auburn. The Tigers had ridden miracles and good fortune to earn a spot in the title game, but tonight, they were winning outright (stolen signals aside).
The Seminoles, spurred on by a late second-quarter Devonta Freeman touchdown, had come alive in the second half, adding on a Roberto Aguayo field goal and Chad Abram reception to flip a 21-3 deficit into a 21-20 one.
Following Abram’s touchdown Auburn, on a 13-play, 69-yard drive, methodically bled out over six minutes of gametime, running Tre Mason 11 times before finally getting held to a field goal.
At 24-20 with under five minutes to play, the Tigers didn’t face any danger of an Aguayo-begotten Seminole victory, putting the pressure on Florida State to bring its comeback full circle. As both teams prepared for kickoff, Jameis Winston, Rashad Greene, Freeman and the rest of the offense sat on the sidelines, anxious for the opportunity to secure the score that would finally put the Seminoles over the top.
The only problem? That chance was going to have come a little bit later.
Kermit Whitfield had proven himself formidable as a kick returner that season, leading the country with an average of 34.4 yards per return (and setting an ACC record with NCAA all-time seventh-best 36. 1 YPR after the title game!) as well as scoring on 97-yarder vs. Wake Forest. “Great returnman,” Brent Musburger noted as Whitfield made strides towards the 20-yard line, not knowing how right he would be proven within the next two seconds.
Whitfield took off towards the left sideline, helped along by one less able-hamstringed Auburn defender and broken free with fantastic blocking, and proceeded to show off the speed that had won him state titles in high school. Musburger had devolved into a frenzy as Whitfield’s score became more imminent, devolving from analysis into single-phrase exclamations.
“Daylight! Green ahead! Got it! Headed for the end zone!”
And as a flailing Tiger popped up and faded out, a hilarious last hope, Whitfield glided into the end zone, engulfed by Karlos Williams Sr. and showered with the screams of frenzied fans, the taste of a championship as close as it had been all night.
Auburn would eventually respond (a fruitless effort, which we’ll talk about soon enough), but in this moment, the slimmer of belief that had nearly died two quarters ago had bloomed into full-grown hope, enabled and brought on by the miracle that was Kermit Whitfield’s 100-yard return.