NCAA FOOTBALL: Kickoff return propels FSU to championship
PASADENA, Calif. — America, meet Kermit Whitfield.
In a game with a Heisman winner, a Heisman finalist and future NFL players on both sides, a freshman made the momentum-shifting play that helped Florida State rally for a 34-31 victory over Auburn in the final BCS championship game.
The Seminoles trailed 24-20 with less than five minutes remaining when Auburn kicked off following a 22-yard field goal.
Whitfield, one of the fastest players in the country, caught the ball in the end zone and took off up the left seam. Teammate Karlos Williams made a block and an Auburn player got out of his lane to open a gaping alley.
Whitfield was never touched en route to a 100-yard return that gave the Seminoles their first lead, 27-24 with 4:31 left in the fourth quarter, since going up 3-0 in the first quarter. He knew he was gone soon as Williams sealed off the defender, allowing him to turn the corner.
“Knew nobody was going to catch me,” Whitfield said. “I saw green. I saw daylight. That’s all I saw. I can’t really explain.
“I’m gone. You can’t touch me.”
Coach Jimbo Fisher actually predicted Whitfield would score a touchdown at halftime. Coaches and players felt they were close to breaking a long one on previous kick returns.
“He said either it’s going to be a set up for good yardage, or it’s going to be a touchdown,” Williams said. “I said, ‘No. 7, what it’s going to be?’ He said, ‘It’s going to be a touchdown.’”
At 5-foot-7, Whitfield is the smallest player on the roster, but also the fastest. He ran a 10.15 100-meter dash in high school that was the third-fastest in Florida high school history. Whitfield said he couldn’t remember the last time he was caught from behind on the football field. The last time he ran a 40-yard dash he finished in 4.37 seconds — and that was untrained. He believes he’s faster now.
Whitfield had only three rushes during the season, but two went for touchdowns and he averaged 36.7 yards per carry. He caught five passes for an average of 17.8 yards per reception. Whitfield added a 97-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against Wake Forest on Nov. 9.
“He’s as good as anybody I’ve ever been around,” Fisher said, “and to do it at that stage — our team blocked very well — but he has that finishing speed and I think the sky’s the limit for that guy in his whole career here at Florida State.”
Whitfield collapsed under the weight of celebrating teammates when he hit the sideline.
“I had no wind in me from when I ran the touchdown,” Whitfield said. “I was so tired I couldn’t hold myself up.”
Whitfield never expected a moment like this. He’s been happy to have earned a starting job as a freshman.
Whitfield stormed to the corner of the field and jumped into the stands after the game.
“I just expect the unexpected,” Whitfield. “I just go with the flow.
“I just play football.”
A reporter asked Whitfield about being the smallest player on the roster and making the game-changing play.
“Biggest heart,” Whitfield said, tapping himself on the chest.