No. 4 FSU steps into ACC driver's seat after win
TALLAHASSEE – Florida State had not been in this position in 2012. And when it happened last year, the result was a loss.
The Seminoles found themselves trailing by 14 points in the third quarter Saturday night and things were not going well. Mistakes were piling up.
There was a fumble on a punt return. Two missed field goals. Two Clemson trick plays, one for a touchdown and another that set up a touchdown.
But there was no panic on the FSU sideline. The No. 4 Seminoles calmly rallied for a 49-37 victory, outscoring No. 10 Clemson 35-3 at one point.
E.J. Manuel passed for a career-high 380 yards and ran for 102 yards – the first FSU quarterback to surpass 300 passing yards and 100 rushing yards since Charlie Ward did it in 1992.
The Seminoles racked up 667 yards of total offense. FSU ran for 287 yards and had five rushing touchdowns, including two each by James Wilder and Chris Thompson.
"It was a huge win for us," Manuel said. "We had to win in order to get to where we wanted to go. This is what you signed up for when you come to Florida State – games like this."
FSU hadn't won games like these, especially after being down by two touchdowns, in recent years. And the win over a top-10 team is the first in Jimbo Fisher's three years as FSU's coach.
The Seminoles defeated a top-10 team for the first time since a road win over No. 7 BYU in 2009. But it's the first home win over a top-10 team since No. 7 FSU routed No. 6 Virginia 36-3 in 2004.
FSU (4-0, 2-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) steps into the driver's seat in the Atlantic Division after back-to-back wins over Wake Forest and Clemson. And the victories help the Seminoles avenge 2011 losses to the Demon Deacons and Tigers.
On Saturday, FSU needed every ounce of offense in the first three quarters as Clemson (3-1, 0-1 ACC) became the first team to surpass the 20-point mark against the Seminoles in 11 games.
The Tigers struck quickly, as Tajh Boyd connected with DeAndre Hopkins on a 60-yard touchdown pass just 1:26 into the game – the first time FSU had allowed a touchdown in 2011. And Clemson kept pouring it on, using a pair of trick plays to take a commanding lead.
A fake field-goal attempt set up an Andre Ellington touchdown run in the first quarter. Clemson added another touchdown in the second quarter, capitalizing on Rashad Greene's fumbled punt return. And the Tigers led 28-14 just three minutes into the third quarter after wide receiver Sammy Watkins caught a pass from Tajh Boyd and then delivered a 52-yard TD pass to Ellington.
But FSU rallied from there, outscoring Clemson 35-3 until a Tigers touchdown in the game's final minutes. Manuel had by far his best night at FSU, completing 27 of 35 passes for 380 yards and two touchdowns.
The senior is 17-4 as a starter and has had plenty of big games for FSU, including a bowl win as a freshman over West Virginia in Bobby Bowden's last game and another last December when he had a broken fibula and led FSU past Notre Dame in the Champs Sports Bowl.
But as far as regular-season games? This one was his signature moment.
"I'll say it wasn't bad," FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said. "I'm going to have to look at the film, but I can't off the top of my head remember a bad decision all night."
Manuel guided FSU to touchdowns on five consecutive second-half drives. FSU ran and passed at will. Before Clemson knew it, the Tigers' 28-14 lead became a 35-31 FSU edge. It took just nine minutes off the game clock.
At the center of it all was Manuel, who is FSU's all-time leader in completion percentage – better than Heisman Trophy winners like Ward and Chris Weinke, who also happen to be two of his texting buddies.
Manuel said he talks with Ward frequently, with their last talk coming on the eve of the Clemson game.
"I talk to him all the time, at least twice a week," Manuel said. "He just told me to take what the defense gives you. He's always encouraging. He's an exciting person to talk to. It's Charlie Ward. He's a huge mentor for me.
"Same with Chris Weinke. He reaches out to me all of the time. He texts me before every game. Having those guys behind me is important."
A win like this, over a top-10 team in a nationally televised game, will surely catapult Manuel's name into the national discussion of Heisman Trophy candidates. But he couldn't care less, something even his dad, Erik, emphasized while holding his son's game ball.
The important thing to Manuel, and Florida State, is that the team is 4-0, and still chasing the program's first national title since 1999.
"I know the make-up of our teammates," Manuel said. "We're going to persevere whether it's good, bad or indifferent."