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Special teams play big factor in BCS title game

By Gerard Gallagher, Contributing College Football Editor

(SportsNetwork.com) - Live by the return, die by the return.

The biggest play in Auburn's season, the one that ultimately catapulted the Tigers into the BCS National Championship Game even though they had to win once more to get there, was Chris Davis' last-second missed field goal return to beat Alabama in the Iron Bowl.

It was an all-time shocker, one of the greatest plays in college football history.

In Monday's title game, the Tigers were on the opposite side of another big return.

Kermit Whitfield -- a freshman wide receiver said to have 4.37 40-yard speed -- took a kickoff back from just inside the goal line to give Florida State its first lead since 3-0 in the first quarter.

The play came with 4 1/2 minutes remaining and sent Auburn reeling, its 21-3 first-half lead suddenly evaporated.

None of Gus Malzahn's players came close to touching Whitfield as he carried the ball out of the end zone and cut left, racing down the sideline.

"Obviously we didn't cover it very well," the Auburn coach said. "That was a big play in the game. That was uncharacteristic (of us) but you gotta give them a lot of credit."

It was one of several key special teams plays on the Rose Bowl field Monday night, where Florida State beat Auburn 34-31 for its first national title in 14 years.

Earlier, Auburn's Steven Clark pinned Florida State down at the 2-yard line with a perfectly placed boot that looked less like a punt than a chip-shot in golf, the ball landing with a little backspin on it.

After the Seminoles went three-and-out Davis -- the Iron Bowl hero -- returned the ensuing punt 22 yards to set up Auburn's first touchdown for a 7-3 lead.

Later, his team trailing by 18 points, Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher knew he needed to pull a rabbit out of his hat.

The call? A fake punt on 4th-and-4 from his own 40-yard line. Karlos Williams picked up seven yards on an end-around and Devonta Freeman scored on a 3-yard run with 88 seconds remaining in the half to pull the Seminoles within 11.

"I knew if they got it back and scored, the game could be over right there," said Fisher. "I thought that's what we had to do to get the momentum back."

Later, with Auburn clinging to a 21-13 lead, Tigers defensive back Jonathan Jones raced to keep Clark's punt out of the end zone and it was downed at the 4-yard line. Florida State made it as far as its 32-yard line and then punted.

The teams averaged 43 yards on 12 combined punts. Florida State didn't get to return any of the six punts it fielded.

Special indeed.

01/07 02:43:51 ET

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