E.J. Manuel keeps Florida State in national title conversation with brilliant outing vs. Clemson

Pat Forde
Yahoo! Sports

E.J. Manuel had a career night in leading FSU past Clemson. (Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
E.J. Manuel had a career night in leading FSU past Clemson. (Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Erik Manuel Sr.'s voice was reduced to a hoarse whisper, but that was fine with him. The game ball was in his left arm and a smile was on his face.

The ball was a gift from his son, E.J., who had just completed the finest performance of his life. The Florida State quarterback has taken a lot of hits in his career as a Seminole, physically and emotionally. Injuries and inconsistency have kept him from living up to his pre-college hype, but this was a payoff night.

For E.J. Manuel and the entire Florida State program. It's been a long time coming.

"This has always been in him," Erik Manuel said of his son. "It just showed at the right time."

Here's what was in him Saturday night against No. 10 Clemson: a career-high 380 yards passing and two touchdowns; a career-high 102 yards rushing; and a 49-37 track-meet victory that ranks as the biggest the Seminoles have had since the program's glory days faded more than a decade ago.

[Watch: Jimbo Fisher discusses Florida State's big victory]

Erik Manuel surmised that a performance like this has been in his son since he was 5 years old. One day in the backyard, little E.J. grabbed a football and fired it through a 4-foot-high little kid's basketball goal from about 15 feet away. Right then, his dad began to suspect he had a special athlete.

Nothing happened to shake that belief as E.J. grew into a 6-foot-5 star at Bayside High School in Virginia Beach, Va. The only quarterback ranked higher than him in the Class of 2008 was Terrelle Pryor, and when then-assistant coach Jimbo Fisher locked up a commitment from Manuel in October 2007, Fisher figured he had Florida State's next great QB.

Greatness has been slow to arrive. In its absence, armchair criticism has been plentiful. Manuel has relied on faith and family to persevere through the rough patches.

"My parents are praying people," he said. "So I give glory to God."

Manuel has played well in three bowl victories. But those bowls were the Gator, the Chick-fil-A and the Champs Sports – and at Florida State, they prefer BCS bowls. There have been too many upset losses in ACC play during Manuel's tenure to keep the Seminoles from playing for the biggest prizes in the game.

And when things go wrong, the head coach and the quarterback tend to be the easiest targets for disgruntled fans.

"I think he just shut everyone up," said FSU running back James Wilder Jr.

"[The criticism] is tough, especially on my wife," Erik Manuel said. "But it's part of what's going on. To whom much is given, much is expected. You have to have tough skin. If you don't want to know nothing bad, don't turn on the TV or read the newspaper."

[Related: Defense dooms Clemson in second half of loss]

Sunday will be a fun day for the Manuels to watch and read the coverage. Five years after committing to the Noles, with Fisher's head-coaching viability at least partially tied to Manuel's play, all the prophecies started to come true.

"It's one game here, 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," Fisher said. "He's a great leader for our football team."

While in Tallahassee, Manuel has been mentored by a couple of other pretty fair Florida State leaders: former quarterback greats Charlie Ward and Chris Weinke. Manuel said he talks to Ward a couple of times a week and is in regular contact with Weinke as well.

Those two guys left Florida State with the ultimate trappings of college football success: a national title and a Heisman Trophy. After blitzing Clemson with a 35-point second half that erased a two-touchdown deficit, both those prizes remain on the table for Manuel and the Seminoles.

Winning this game guarantees nothing for Florida State, but it at least keeps it in the national championship conversation. And you'd be surprised how long it's been since FSU was still a contender even one-third of the way into the season. FSU hasn't started 4-0 since 2005 – and that season spiraled into an 8-5 dud. With a schedule that allows the Noles to dream of 12-0, they can start to appraise the competition and see how they stack up.

Right now, everyone is playing for No. 2 behind Alabama. The question is whether the voters and computers will reward a team from the Atlantic Coast Conference with that high a rating over potential competition from the Pac-12, Big 12 and a second team from the ACC.

For the better part of a decade, the ACC has been a football underperformer. And while handily beating No. 10 Clemson is nice, there is considerable suspicion that the visitors were paper Tigers – especially on defense.

Last time Clemson met a powerful offense, it gave up 70 points to West Virginia last January in the Orange Bowl. Florida State on Saturday night piled up 667 yards and could have scored in the 60s if it hadn't missed two field goals early and taken a knee late in the red zone.

Does beating Clemson – and surrendering 37 points in the process – really prove a lot? We won't know for a while.

[Related: Oregon State hits In-N-Out after win at UCLA]

Florida State still is yet to play a road game and has five of those in the next seven games (most difficult is probably a Thursday night visit to Virginia Tech). But if FSU is still rolling late in the season, its championship hopes could come down to Nov. 24. The Seminoles will host archrival Florida, which looks like an upper echelon SEC team again. And in a game that could also register in terms of conference prestige and power ratings, Clemson will host SEC opponent and archrival South Carolina.

For a conference that hasn't earned much respect this season or in many years, those games could be the biggest in a long time.

From an individual standpoint, Manuel certainly interjected himself into what looks like a muddled Heisman picture.

Since Matt Barkley faltered at Stanford last week, there is plenty of room for additional contenders. West Virginia's Geno Smith is the perceived front-runner at this point, but the Mountaineers have played a soft schedule to date. If Manuel can continue playing like he did against Clemson and Florida State can keep winning, he'll be in the mix.

Those things will be decided in the weeks to come. For now, Erik Manuel has a game ball and E.J. Manuel is the toast of Tallahassee. At last.

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