Last Monday, EJ Manuel was asked what it would mean to him to have a signature moment in Saturday’s top-10 matchup with Clemson.
"It would be huge," Manuel said. "The fact that there’s so much buildup going into the game is something that you grow up as a kid wanting to be a part of."
Signature moment? Check. Manuel’s performance against Clemson was indeed the type of game kids grow up dreaming about having on a big stage. The often-maligned senior delivered arguably the finest game of his career on one of the biggest stages he’s faced Manuel racked up a staggering 482 total yards (380 passing, 102 rushing) on the night in Florida State’s 49-37 victory. That made Manuel the first Florida State quarterback to pass for 300+ and run for 100+ since a Mr. Charlie Ward did the same against Maryland all the way back in 1992.
Manuel’s importance against Clemson went beyond the numbers too, as he also played a key leadership role in keeping the Seminoles grounded when they fell behind amidst a mistake-laden first half.
"He was just telling us, ‘don’t get too hyped’", said Kelvin Benjamin. "He was real calm. I’ve never seen him like that.
"He just kept everybody up, kept everybody into the game," said Rashad Greene. "Made sure no one got down or sidetracked about things not going right."
Between Manuel’s arm and legs, things ultimately ended up going Florida State’s way, despite the errors committed in the first half and early third quarter. The Seminoles racked up 667 yards of offense against a Clemson defense that struggled to get any traction. That marked the third time in four games that Florida State has broken the 600 yard mark as an offense in 2012.
"I told the guys early on in practice, that we were going to have to score points," Manuel said. "Those guys are really good on offense."
Manuel’s teammates said they knew that their leader had it in him to turn in this type of performance. It came at a great time for him after his performance was one of the few aspects that fans had concerns about in last week’s blowout win over Wake Forest.
"I’ve been very tired of people [saying] ‘oh you know, EJ, can y’all do it, EJ is inconsistent,’" James Wilder Jr. said. "EJ is one of the hardest working guys on the team. I think he shut everybody up."
While it will take more strong performances like this one to keep skeptics quiet, there’s no doubt that Manuel gave few reasons to question him and his offense on Saturday. The senior kept up his usual level of efficiency passing the ball, connecting at 77.1% (27-35). He also showed the ability to get the ball downfield effectively and make more dynamic plays, most notably on a beautiful 29-yard touchdown pass to Rodney Smith that gave Florida State its first lead of the night.
Manuel’s dream night also ended up netting him a new career-high in passing yards as he shattered his old personal best of 329 yards before the end of the third quarter. The difference in the moments can’t be overlooked either, as Manuel’s previous high came last September, against lowly Charleston Southern.
While the questions about Manuel haven’t necessarily been unfair at times, it’s hard to deny that Saturday represented a big moment and a step forward for the senior. It could be argued that Manuel entered without a true signature moment or game in his career, but after he left Doak Campbell Stadium with a big win and career night in tow, he’s got one. If Florida State receives more games like this one, 2012 could finally be the year that the Seminoles deliver on their considerable hype. To put it in perspective, Florida State allowed Clemson to amass 426 yards, recover two fumbles, and inflicted 81 yards worth of penalties on itself, but still held a three-score lead in the 4th . The offense was simply that effective. In 2011, that many mistakes would have been a recipe for disaster.
While the reserved Manuel was hesitant to call it a signature moment for himself, even he acknowledged it was a special night.
"It was probably the best game I’ve had statistic wise, the first game where we’ve really thrown the ball and gotten a lot of yards so it was a big game for us," Manuel said. "Nothing changed, just the moment, it was time to get it done and that’s what we did."
"That was great," Chris Thompson said of his quarterback’s breakout. "I am very happy for EJ because he prepares to be great every single day. I am really excited for him. I just hope this performance pushes him to keep going and do even better."
Florida State opponents have to be hoping just the opposite. If Manuel gets better from here, playing the Seminoles won’t be a fun proposition for the rest of this season.