- Mark Schlabach, ESPN Senior Writer
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TALLAHASSEE -- With No. 4 Florida State trailing No. 10 Clemson by a touchdown at halftime of Saturday night's game at Doak Campbell Stadium, Seminoles quarterback EJ Manuel finally decided to speak up.
Manuel, a soft-spoken senior from Virginia Beach, Va., delivered a stirring speech to his teammates, telling them they couldn't afford to squander another opportunity to return to college football's elite programs.
"He spoke up and the locker room was quiet," FSU running back James Wilder Jr. said. "He looked everybody in the eyes. He was looking at the offense and the defense. Everybody respects him because he's such a great leader. Then he went out and held his ground and picked everybody up."
Manuel did more than hold his ground, leading the Seminoles to a come-from-behind 49-37 victory over the Tigers in front of a sold-out crowd of 83,231 fans. Manuel completed 27 of 35 passes for a career-high 380 yards with two touchdowns and ran 12 times for 102 yards. He became the first FSU quarterback to pass for 300 yards and run for 100 yards in the same game since 1993 Heisman Trophy winner Charlie Ward did it against Maryland in 1992.
"It's huge because it's what he's capable of doing and now people have seen him do it," FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said. "I'm anxious to see how he reacts to it. It's the guy I've seen all the time, and now he's done it."
Most importantly, Manuel might have finally proved to himself and his teammates that he's capable of playing well in the Seminoles' biggest games.
"It's huge," said Erik Manuel, the quarterback's father, who stood in FSU's postgame interview room holding his son's game ball. "It's not about him individually, it's about the team. But this was a great obstacle he just overcame today. I'm so proud of them. Even if this didn't happen, it wouldn't have validated him in his mind. But I'm glad it did."
In a game that would decide which team would jump into the driver's seat in the ACC race -- and stay in the hunt for a BCS national championship -- Manuel stood up when the Seminoles needed him most.
After Clemson took a 28-14 lead on receiver Sammy Watkins' 52-yard touchdown pass to tailback Andre Ellington on a trick play early in the third quarter, Manuel guided the Seminoles to five touchdowns and a 35-3 run to turn the game into a rout. Tailback Chris Thompson's 27-yard touchdown run gave FSU a 49-31 lead with 8:34 to play.
"We just knew we had to keep scoring points to help our defense out," Manuel said. "We knew [Clemson] could score 50 points easily. As an offense, we knew we had to go out there and take initiative and score points. Our defense played lights-out in the second half."
Coming into the season, Manuel, a third-year starter, was one of Florida State's biggest question marks. The Seminoles brought back one of the country's stingiest defenses, and their schedule provides a very navigable path to the BCS National Championship Game. But Manuel struggled to stay healthy last season and had yet to lead the Seminoles to a signature victory in his career before beating Clemson.
"Last year, we lost to Clemson and we lost to Oklahoma," Wilder said. "People are always saying he's inconsistent. I think he pretty much shut up everybody today. I think he made a statement tonight."
Like Ward, who led the Seminoles to the 1993 national championship, Manuel has always preferred to let his play do the talking. Ironically, he spoke to Ward on the telephone on Friday night. Ward, a former point guard with the NBA's New York Knicks, now coaches high school football in Houston.
"We talk all the time, at least twice per week," Manuel said. "He's an exciting person to talk to. It's Charlie Ward. He's a mentor to me."
Manuel has also forged a close relationship with former FSU quarterback Chris Weinke, the 2000 Heisman Trophy winner, who guided the Seminoles to the 1999 national championship.
"Those are people you grew up watching," Manuel said. "They're huge reasons I came here, and I just wanted to continue the legacy."
Until now, Manuel hadn't forged much of a legacy at Florida State. He passed for more than 4,000 yards and 24 touchdowns in his first three seasons, but the Seminoles lost four games or more in each of the past three seasons.
But now the Seminoles' biggest obstacle might be in their rear-view mirror. They still play road games at South Florida, NC State, Miami and Virginia Tech and close the regular season against rival Florida at home on Nov. 24.
"It's one game, 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."
And now Manuel is a quarterback who has won a game that really mattered.
"It's a good win," Fisher said. "We should win big games here at Florida State. We're 4-0 and that's all it is."