Nov. 14, 2009
WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. – With college football’s longest active bowl-game streak on the line and their redshirt junior quarterback relegated to the sideline with a season-ending injury, the Florida State football team turned to a rookie Saturday afternoon at Wake Forest.
Making his first career start, redshirt freshman EJ Manuel showed exactly why he was considered one of the country’s best high school quarterbacks as a senior two years ago and exactly how well he has been coached since becoming a collegian as he guided the Seminoles to a 41-28 win over the Demon Deacons.
At game’s end, the 6-foot-5 signal-caller’s stat line looked nothing like that of a quarterback whose only prior experience was mop-up duty against BYU and a few meaningless plays against Clemson. With injured starter Christian Ponder serving as his sideline mentor, Manuel completed 15 of his 20 pass attempts for 221 yards, one touchdown and just one interception.
He also made plays with his legs, rushing for 45 yards on 10 carries with one score. As an offense, FSU scored on six of its nine possessions, accrued 436 total yards and was only forced to punt twice.
With the win, Florida State (5-5, 3-4 Atlantic Coast Conference) is now just one triumph shy of earning a nation’s-best 28th-straight bowl game. It also serves as a little revenge against a Wake Forest (4-7, 2-5) team that had won the last three meetings between the two but has now officially been knocked out of bowl contention.
As he has been the case since the ‘Noles’ win over N.C. State a few weeks ago, starting tailback Jermaine Thomas was terrific toting the football. The sophomore tailback rushed for a game-high 148 yards on 25 carries, marking the third game in a row that the Jacksonville, Fla. native has scampered for triple-digit rushing yards.
For Wake Forest, Riley Skinner was looking to become the first-ever quarterback to beat the Seminoles four times. He won’t get that chance, though, because he tossed two interceptions – one to Ochuko Jenije and another to Kendall Smith – with just one score.
Offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher elected to utilize a very conservative approach to start the second half with his team boasting a double-digit lead. But after a third quarter in which Manuel didn’t throw a single pass, Fisher reopened the playbook for his young signal-caller in the final period.
The Demon Deacons had trimmed FSU’s lead to 34-21 in the third quarter and early in the fourth quarter Manuel showed his moxie by converting a key third down to redshirt senior wide receiver Rod Owens that kept a drive alive. A few plays later he showed his dual-threat ability with a neat little fake pitch on an option that resulted in a 24-yard gain on the ground.
Two plays later Manuel tossed his first-ever touchdown pass when he found Fortson for a seven-yard score to give the Seminoles a 41-21 lead.
Clinging to a 20-point advantage, the FSU defense bent, and then bent some more on the ensuing Wake Forest possession but Jenije didn’t let his unit break as he picked off Skinner in the endzone.
The Seminoles scored on their first four possession of the first half as Manuel didn’t look anything like a quarterback without much experience.
The Virginia Beach, Va. native showed an early sign of things to come on the game’s first drive as he took the offense 81 yards down the field and into the endzone on a Ty Jones rush. Then, after Wake Forest had scored on its first possession to tie the score at 7-7, FSU answered with a 68-yard touchdown drive that culminated with Thomas’ plunge over the goal line.
The Seminoles have struggled all year long wit trading touchdown for touchdown but Saturday in Winston-Salem that trend changed on Wake Forest’s second possession.
Trailing 14-7, Skinner tried to force a throw and Seminoles middle linebacker Kendall Smith snatched it out of the air and took it back to the ‘Noles 27-yard line.
After two long, methodical scoring drives, FSU needed just a few plays to extend its lead after Skinner’s turnover and for the first time in his young career Manuel snuck into the endzone on a one-yard rush to push his team’s lead to 21-7.
And the excitement continued after that.
A few minutes after the ‘Noles turned a defensive stop into a 47-yard field goal by true freshman kicker Dustin Hokpins, another stop by the FSU defense directly led to some points.
Fielding a punt off the bounce, defensive back Greg Reid – yet another first-year Seminole playing valuable minutes in high-pressure situations – zigged, zagged and leaped his way to pay dirt as he registered the first punt return of his career on what was a 68-yard score.
Florida State’s stretch of 24-straight points did come to an end, though. After Reid’s amazing play, Wake Forest marched in for its second score of the day and Manuel was intercepted on the next FSU possession as the Seminoles went into the break with a 31-14 lead.
Florida State will return home for its last game of the year on Bobby Bowden Field at Doak Campbell Stadium. Fans are encouraged to arrive early and get loud as the program will celebrate the career of 26-year defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews, who will retire at season’s end.
The ‘Noles will also wear special limited edition Nike Pro Combat uniforms against the Terrapins as they look to clinch a bowl berth.
Kick-off time will be announced on Sunday.