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EJ Manuel's Coming Out Party: 20 Years Earlier?
If you were at the game, then you witnessed a contest that surely no Florida State fan will ever forget. The quarterback you wanted so much to believe in was cast upon the big stage yet again. FSU had to have this win, and well, he'd let you down before. Maybe you'd lost faith in him. Maybe you were beginning to think that the expectations on him were too high. Perhaps he just wasn't going to live up to his potential. You'd seen the flashes of brilliance, but it's getting pretty late in the game and FSU is trailing by two touchdowns. This just isn't how you envisioned it. It's now or never.
So, were you at the game? Because if you were, then you no doubt left Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta with the feeling that something special had just happened. Of course you were correct. It was 1992 and, before the now-famous 4th quarter that saw Charlie Ward eliminate a 21-7 deficit and alter the course of a season and a program, the junior signal caller had thrown 15 interceptions through 6 3/4 games. Every Seminole, even you, had given up on him. You were happy, and hopeful, when true freshman Danny Kanell briefly spelled Ward in the third quarter. Could he do any worse than Ward?
Before we continue, please understand that we're not going to compare EJ Manuel and Charlie Ward as quarterbacks, although Manuel is now the ACC's all-time leader in passer rating. We're simply going to compare Manuel's "coming-out party" against Clemson in 2012, if that's what it was - time will tell - to Ward's emergence as a completely different quarterback on that fateful evening in 1992.
Certainly there are some similarities. The expectations on both quarterbacks were sky-high. One could argue there was more hype for EJ coming in, but be assured that no one expected Charlie Ward to be a complete bust two-thirds of the way through the 1992 season, and Ward absolutely was a bust heading into that final period in Atlanta. Had Manuel been considered a bust going into the 2012 Clemson game? No, that would be an overstatement, but EJ hadn't yet brought FSU "back" from the Lost Decade, and that was the expectation placed on his shoulders. He had not become the savior 'Nole fans had envisioned.
More than that, there was a feeling that the coaching staff in '92 wasn't utilizing Ward in a way that best suited his skill set. Exactly what led the coaches to do this can be debated another day, but long story short, they looked up at the clock at Bobby Dodd, saw that FSU was down 21-7 with time quickly running out, and decided to put Ward in the shotgun with four wide receivers. The results revolutionized the Florida State offense. The coaches let Charlie Ward be Charlie Ward, and the '93 Heisman trophy winner essentially played sandlot football as the head coach and offensive staff handed him the keys. Ward would throw only 7 interceptions the rest of his career and his play secured Florida State's first national championship in 1993.
Entering the 2012 Clemson game, plenty had argued that EJ wasn't being utilized correctly by Jimbo Fisher and his offensive staff. Why weren't they using EJ's legs? Why did it look like sometimes EJ would understand the offense and sometimes he wouldn't? To the point, was Jimbo trying to ram a square peg into a round hole? Why wouldn't he let EJ be EJ?
Plus, did Manuel want to be EJ? Or was he stridently trying to show everyone that he was a pro-style QB and not a runner?
On Saturday you had the feeling you were finally seeing EJ's offense. And the results were everything you'd been hoping for.
Ward and Manuel are close. They talk weekly, sometimes more. I wonder if this came up in conversation.
So what happens next? Was this indeed EJ's coming-out party? Clemson's defense is almost as bad as Florida State's 2009 bunch. So it's tough to tell. We'll begin to find out this weekend at USF if he can keep this offense at a high level.