Whitfield's 100+ yard kickoff return for a touchdown with just over four minutes left in the BCS National Championship Game put the Seminoles in the lead for the first time since they led 3-0 in the first quarter and helped prove the difference between a championship and a disappointing finish to one of the most dominant seasons in modern college football history. A closer look at Whitfield's return shows just how razor thin the margins between winning and losing can be at the highest levels.
Some—including ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit's in-game commentary—have pointed to Auburn defensive back Jonathan Jones' hamstring injury as the difference that opened the running lane for Whitfield, but a closer look at the tape shows that Jones likely would have had little impact even if fully healthy, as his lane was between the hashes, while Whitfield passed that point around the numbers.
But if it wasn't Jones' injury, what was the reason for the gaping running lane Whitfield was able to hit at full gallop? The answer is one of the hidden things in special teams play that few would know to look for.
The answer can be found in the first second of the above video. Take note of the angle at which the ball comes off kicker Cody Parkey's foot. Parkey is without question kicking the football to the deep left (the returning team's right), aiming for outside the left hash in the hopes of pinning the returner to one side of the field. But Parkey's kick sliced to the point that Whitfield actually caught the kick on the opposite side of the PAT line marking the middle of the field.
You can clearly see Auburn's kickoff squad running to the left at the kick, while Kenny Flowers peeled slightly to the left behind another teammate, leading to Herbstreit singling him out for "getting out of his lane."
But the truth is that Flowers wasn't out of his lane but was instead doing exactly what he was supposed to do on a deep left kickoff, as illustrated on the diagram below:
Flowers was the third player from the right and was simply doing his job, unaware that the ball would be caught so far to the right. Jones was the fourth player from the right, with the lane just inside the hash. That left two players on that side with any chance of affecting Whitfield.
Florida State, in contrast, had called a "Counter Left Return," meaning the initial blocking setup and Whitfield's first two steps would give the appearance of a return to the return team's right (kickoff's left side) before quickly changing leverage and shifting to a right return. That wound up being the perfect call for a kick that was already way too far to that side, leading to a massive lane through which Whitfield could make use of his world-class speed..
So the truth is that a sliced kickoff that landed about 15 yards to the right of where it should have was the real difference here, giving FSU's return team the space it needed for a game-changing play.