PITTSBURGH (AP) — Asked to nitpick his astounding college debut, Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston furrowed his brow and thought for a moment.
Forgive him if it took awhile. There wasn’t much to choose from.
“I got sacked,” Winston said. “I don’t like getting sacked.”
OK, so there’s one thing. Good luck on coming up with two.
The redshirt freshman nicknamed “Famous Jameis” surpassed even his own lofty expectations in the 11th-ranked Seminoles’ 41-13 romp over Pittsburgh on Monday night, completing 25 of 27 passes for 356 yards and four touchdowns while adding another on the ground in a performance that left everyone but his teammates stunned.
“I wasn’t surprised,” cornerback LaMarcus Joyner said. “I told him pregame you go against the best every day … and the way you rip us apart sometimes in scrimmages, we know you can do it against anyone in the nation.”
You won’t find Pitt arguing.
The Panthers had been pointing to their ACC opener from the moment the program announced it was leaving the decaying Big East nearly two years ago. Instead, it served as the backdrop for a coming out party that will certainly fuel comparisons to Johnny Manziel’s unlikely rise to folk hero and Heisman Trophy winner at Texas A&M last fall.
“I was certainly impressed with him,” Pitt coach Paul Chryst said. “He did a good job of making plays and extending plays.”
Rashad Greene caught eight passes for 126 yards and a score and Nick O’Leary hauled in three touchdown passes for Florida State but the night belonged to the athletic 6-foot-4, 227-pound kid from Hueytown, Ala., that certainly looked at home in front of a national audience in a stadium that also houses the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers.
“It’s Monday Night Football,” Winston said. “We come in and play Monday Night Football in a pro stadium? I was so pumped for that.”
Looked like it.
Winston won the starting job during training camp, edging out Jacob Coker to become just the third freshman to start a season opener for the Seminoles.
Don’t plan on him giving up the gig anytime soon.
A star outfielder on the school baseball team, Winston is considered the latest in a line of two-sport threats at Florida State, a list that includes Pro Football Hall of Famer Deion Sanders and 1993 Heisman Trophy winner Charlie Ward.
Ward, however, didn’t become a star until he finally cracked the starting lineup as a junior. Winston appears to already be there a game into his career. He connected on his first 11 passes, missing on his 12th when wide receiver Kenny Shaw couldn’t quite get his right foot all the way inbounds.
“I was confident I got it in,” Shaw said with a laugh. “I’m used to the refs not being on our side.”
Winston’s only other incompletion came while he escaped pressure late in the third quarter. By then the Seminoles were in command 31-13 after Winston spent three quarters serving up what the Seminoles hope is an appetizer of things to come as they battle Clemson for ACC supremacy.
Twice Winston pulled himself free from a defensive lineman’s grasp to find a receiver downfield. He converted a first-and-28 with a 36-yard strike to Greene and even served as the lead blocker for Devonta Freeman when the running back broke into the secondary.
“He could use some work,” Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher joked when asked about his quarterback’s impromptu cameo as a fullback.
Pitt quarterback Tom Savage passed for 201 yards and a touchdown for Pitt but also threw a pair of interceptions.
Or, as many interceptions as Winston had incompletions.
Pitt’s defense, which ranked 17th in the country last season, appeared unsure on how to stop him. Wary of the speed of Florida State’s wide receivers, the Panthers gave Greene and company plenty of room to maneuver.
Too much, as it turned out. Way too much. For all of Winston’s precision, often he was throwing to teammates who didn’t have anybody in dressed in blue within arm’s reach.
“We never made them uncomfortable,” Chryst said. “Give them credit. We’ve got to tackle better, but they ran through our tackles.”
The Panthers were primed early looking to prove they belonged in the better, deeper ACC after more than two decades of middling success during their two decades in the Big East.
If Savage was nervous about kick-starting a collegiate career that was on life support for more than two years, it didn’t show. The quarterback who led Rutgers to a 12-1 record as a freshman in 2009 hit Devin Street for a 31-yard gain on Pitt’s first drive, Savage’s first completion in a game in 1,024 days.
For a few minutes, the 23-year-old appeared in a hurry to make up for lost time.
He hit Street again for 16 yards before finding Manasseh Garner for a 4-yard touchdown to give Pitt a quick 7-0 lead. The toss completed a full career arc for the well-traveled Savage, who transferred to Arizona in 2011 before moving on to Pitt last year. His previous touchdown pass came on Oct. 23, 2010, while playing mop-up duty for the Scarlet Knights in a 41-21 loss to the Panthers.
It was a nice moment, but all it did was set the stage for Winston.
The Seminoles scored touchdowns on four straight possessions to end the first half. Winston’s first scoring toss went 24 yards to O’Leary — the grandson of golfing great Jack Nicklaus — to tie the game. The two hooked up early in the second quarter when Winston flipped to an open O’Leary in the back of the end zone to make it 14-7.
Winston bulled over from 5 yards out the next time Florida State had the ball, and he finished a sublime half with a 20-yard strike to Greene that left little doubt Winston was ready for the big stage.