TALLAHASSEE -- While the Florida State Seminoles were inserting themselves squarely into the national title hunt with a 49-37 win over Clemson on Saturday night, their quarterback, EJ Manuel, was putting his name into the Heisman running.
“I didn’t realize he threw for 380 [yards] and ran for 102 [yards],” coach Jimbo Fisher joked after the game. “That’s pretty good.”
Saturday night was a national coming- out party for the 6-5, 240-pound quarterback. It was a long time coming.
Now a fifth-year senior, Manuel has been through the grinder. After arriving in Tallahassee as a highly touted recruit, he carried the expectations that came as then-head-coach-in-waiting Fisher’s quarterback of the future.
Manuel was thrust into action early on, filling in for an injured Christian Ponder. He went 3-1 as a freshman and beat West Virginia in the Gator Bowl, Bobby Bowden’s final game.
But last year, his first as a starter, some of the promise started to fade a little. Manuel downplayed — and in one case hid — injuries that affected his play on the field. He was hurt against Oklahoma, missed the loss to Clemson and couldn’t bail the Seminoles out against Wake Forest after missing the first half of that game.
Despite playing all last year with a badly injured shoulder and beating Notre Dame in the Champs Bowl on a broken leg, Manuel entered 2012 a question mark.
Could he rise to the occasion when it mattered most?
On Saturday Manuel proved that he could — and in doing so inserted his name firmly in the Heisman hunt.
“I thought he was extremely selfless and understood how to win,” Fisher said. “I was very proud of him. I say it all the time, it’s one game here [that you get to see him like this] but I get to coach him every day and look into his eyes and see what he does and how he thinks and he’s a tremendous young man. He’s a great leader for our football team.”
Down 28-14 to Clemson in the third quarter with their season potentially on the line, Manuel rallied the Seminoles and led them on a 35-3 run that put the game well out of reach.
The Seminoles offense mixed the option and spread and tore apart the Tiger’s defense behind Manuel’s nearly 500 yards of offense (27 of 35 for 380 yards and two touchdowns; 102 rushing). The fifth-year senior never looked rattled or lost his cool, instead he looked Heisman-like as he helped FSU to a resounding win over a very good Clemson team.
With USC faltering behind a poor performance by Matt Barkley a couple weeks ago and the struggles at Wisconsin hurting Montee Ball, Manuel could find himself rising quickly up the list of hopefuls.
And after Saturday night, he has a signature win on a national stage. That’s always a Heisman prerequisite. But Manuel isn’t getting ahead of himself either. Awards are great but he’s after something else.
“I just want to win games for my teammates,” Manuel said. “I’m not really about personal accolades and things like that. If it comes it does. I just want to win and leave a legacy at Florida State for our fans.”