GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Kelvin Benjamin shook off one tackler and then three more, bullying his way into the end zone to finish off Florida State’s most impressive play on a day filled with them.
Benjamin was clearly a mismatch — just like the game.
Jameis Winston threw three touchdown passes to Benjamin, and No. 2 Florida State moved a step closer to playing for the national championship with a 37-7 victory against rival Florida on Saturday.
“Tremendous,” FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said. “KB has real advantages with his size, speed and athleticism. He can be a very, very special player, and he’s starting to develop into that guy.”
The Seminoles improved to 12-0 for the first time since 1999 and likely will earn a spot in the Bowl Championship Series title game by beating Duke in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game next Saturday.
Florida, meanwhile, ended its worst season since 1979.
The Gators (4-8) lost their final seven games and missed a bowl for the first time since 1990. Florida’s bowl streak had been the second-longest in the country, behind Florida State.
“We hit rock bottom this year,” Florida guard Max Garcia said. “I feel like the only way we can go is up.”
The Seminoles were four-touchdown favorites in a lopsided matchup that lived up to advance billing.
Although the outcome was never in doubt, the Gators made it interesting early with some stout defense. They hit Winston several times, even late once, and stuffed FSU’s running game.
But with its offense floundering once again — Florida managed just three first downs in the first half — the defense eventually wore down.
And Winston &Co. took advantage.
“His competitiveness is ridiculous,” Fisher said of Winston. “He’s a competitor. Nothing fazes that guy. He thrives on that. … The guy’s ability to learn and process information is what puts him over the top. He can think. He understands what he’s doing at all times. And when he makes a mistake, he can come off and tell you exactly why he did it, what he did or didn’t do right.”
Winston, the Heisman Trophy candidate being investigated for his role in an alleged rape, hooked up with Benjamin for touchdown passes of 45 and 29 yards in the second quarter. Winston found his 6-foot-5 target again in the third, a 56-yard connection that would have gone the distance had Benjamin not fallen down while making the catch.
Devonta Freeman scored on the next play, weaving untouched from 11 yards out and putting the Seminoles ahead 27-0.
Winston and Benjamin recorded the hat trick with a 4-yard score in the fourth.
FSU outgained Florida 456-193, most of it through the air.
Winston completed 19 of 31 passes for 327 yards. Benjamin caught nine passes for a career-high 212 yards, beating Loucheiz Purifoy early and often. Benjamin’s previous high was 103 yards receiving at Boston College earlier this year.
“Just doing the little things to be a great receiver, basically,” Benjamin said.
About the only thing that went wrong for FSU was that testy exchange between Winston and coach Jimbo Fisher in the fourth quarter. Fisher was upset that Winston let the play clock wind down, forcing the team to call timeout. Winston screamed back at Fisher, who grabbed Winston’s facemask on the sideline.
The coach and player downplayed it afterward.
Florida’s defense held tough early, giving up just 33 yards and a field goal in the first quarter. Purifoy even intercepted Winston’s fifth pass of the game, but the Gators failed to capitalize on the turnover. Austin Hardin missed a 49-yard field goal wide right. It was Florida’s ninth missed field goal of the season.
As the offense kept stalling, the defense started fading.
“Everybody started looking at the scoreboard as a collective group and saying, ‘Dang, the offense is just three-and-out, three-and-out, three-and-out,’” Florida defensive lineman Jon Bullard said.
It certainly didn’t help that Florida had to throw its offensive game plan out the window after four plays.
Trey Burton hurt his left shoulder on his second carry of the game, a fitting finale for the injury-riddled Gators.
Coach Will Muschamp said the plan was to line Burton up at quarterback for 35 plays. He ran twice for 47 yards, including a 50-yarder up the middle on his first carry. He injured his shoulder on his second run, Florida’s fourth offensive play.
He went to the locker room and later returned wearing street clothes. His left arm was in a sling and wrapped with ice.
“Obviously you don’t want to go out like that,” Burton said. “I felt like I let my team down a little bit.”
Without him, Florida turned to freshman Skyler Mornhinweg. He struggled in his two previous games, throwing for 229 yards, with two touchdowns and an interception.
Mornhinweg finished 20-of-25 passing for 115 yards.
Florida’s worst season in 34 years did nothing to affect Muschamp’s status for 2014.
Athletic director Jeremy Foley held an impromptu news conference before the game and reiterated “total confidence” in Muschamp, but said “we’ve got to fix some things” on the offensive side of the ball.
“We haven’t made an excuse all year and we’re not going to make them now,” Foley said. “We know what this program is all about. I have total confidence in coach Muschamp and have made that clear. We’ve got to fix some things.”