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The top 100 FSU football plays: No. 89— EJ’s perfect pass to Rodney Smith shifts balance of power in ACC

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For one night in 2012, the college football world caught a glimpse of what was about to come.

Clemson v Florida State Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Date: September 22, 2012

Location: Doak S. Campbell Stadium; Tallahassee, Florida

Opponent: No. 10 Clemson Tigers

Florida State entered the 2012 season brimming with talent and surrounded by hype. After a disappointing 2011 campaign that saw the Seminoles hit hard by the injury bug, all the pieces appeared to be in place for a title run.

After beginning the season ranked 7th in the AP Poll, FSU quickly moved up to 4th after two blowouts over FCS teams and then a 52-0 whitewashing of a Wake Forest team that beat the ‘Noles one season prior.

But the fourth game of the year represented a substantial step up in competition. Coming off an ACC Title, the 10th ranked Clemson Tigers strolled into Doak on a warm September night feeling confident. And why shouldn’t they? The Tigers owned victories over the Seminoles in 5 of the previous 7 meetings and they fielded a team littered with NFL talent, including names like Sammy Watkins, DeAndre Hopkins, Andre Ellington, Martavis Bryant, Grady Jarrett, and Stephone Anthony.

It was the second early season top 10 matchup at home in as many seasons for FSU and after getting teased against Oklahoma the year before, Seminole fans were ready for more than a moral victory.

With a palpable electricity in the air for the prime time kickoff, Clemson came out of the gates lightning fast. Tajh Boyd found Nuke Hopkins for a 60-yard scoring strike less than 90 seconds into the game.

Florida State countered with a Lonnie Pryor TD run on the ensuing drive, then evened up the score again at 14 on a James Wilder run. But after Seminole miscues stalled several second quarter drives, Clemson flashed some razzle dazzle on a Watkins to Ellington touchdown pass and the Seminoles found themselves down 28-14 early in the third quarter.

Would FSU falter on the big stage yet again? Not on this night.

A flurry of action by both squads saw the ‘Noles cut Clemson’s lead to 31-28 on an EJ Manuel to Rashad Greene TD pass midway through the third. Then, after getting the defensive stop they needed, FSU looked to seize momentum for good.

Driving into Clemson territory late in the 3rd quarter, another Seminole mistake looked like it might prove costly as a holding call wiped a brilliant Chris Thompson TD run off the board. FSU needed to get six, not three. Fortunately, number 3 was up to the task on the very next play.

On second and 8, redshirt senior quarterback EJ Manuel took the snap and launched a picture perfect pass to a streaking Rodney Smith. Smith, fighting through a pass interference call, made the catch in the endzone without ever breaking stride and the Seminoles grabbed the lead for the first time all game. They never trailed again.

FSU would pad their lead with two more touchdowns to open the 4th quarter, ultimately going on a devastating 35-3 run. Clemson added a late score for cosmetic purposes, but Florida State walked away with a wild 49-37 victory. If you have the time, do yourself a favor and watch the full game highlights because this was truly a night filled with spectacular plays by both squads.

Manuel finished his monster night with 380 yards through the air (on 27-35 passing) with another 102 yards on the ground, running the triple and speed options to perfection. For Smith, a senior, it was the signature catch of a career in which he hauled in more than 100 receptions for 1,540 yards and 10 touchdowns.

For many Seminole fans, the 2012 season represents a lost opportunity. A good season, to be sure, but one that was supposed to be so much more. FSU featured a senior quarterback, oodles of talent at the skill positions, an experienced offensive line, and a loaded, swarming defense. This was the year the national championship would come back to Tallahassee.

And then it didn’t.

A couple weeks after the victory over Clemson, NC State upset FSU after coming back from a 16-0 halftime deficit. That, plus a late-season loss to UF, kept the Seminoles out of the national title picture for yet another year.

But just as Rome wasn’t built in a day, neither was FSU’s perfect season in 2013. The reality is, learning how to win is a skill. Prior to 2012, Florida State hadn’t finished with fewer than four losses since 2004. The Seminoles hadn’t won a game with this much meaning since the 2005 ACC Title game.

All of the swagger, confidence, determination, and focus that defined FSU’s run to the 2013 national championship was forged in the fire of the 2012 season. A season that saw FSU win its first ACC title in seven years and its first major bowl game since the Sugar Bowl following the 1999 season, nearly 15 years prior. After losing at least three ACC games in six of the previous seven seasons, FSU would win 28 of their next 29 games against conference opponents.

At least for one night in 2012, FSU captivated the college football world. Manuel looked like a Heisman trophy contender. Chris Thompson, James Wilder, and Lonnie Pryor formed a terrifying three-headed attack out of the backfield. The defense was opportunistic and hard hitting. And the atmosphere buzzed like Doak during the Dynasty.

If the 2011 Oklahoma game brought the enthusiasm back to Doak Campbell Stadium, the 2012 Clemson game brought back the belief. Belief that FSU could once again compete on the nation’s biggest stage. Belief that FSU could once again excite the country with firepower all over the field. Belief that FSU was indeed “back.”