With 2012 winding to a close, we're counting down the five biggest moments of the past season for Florida State. Today, we look at No. 2: EJ Manuel's fumble against Florida.
In the aftermath, EJ Manuel looked dazed, his voice barely above a whisper. The hit by Florida freshman Antonio Morrison left his head ringing and sidelined him for a drive, but that was only the beginning of Manuel's woes.
Manuel's final home game in his five-year career at Florida State also might have been his worst. It was a dismal performance that included four turnovers by the senior quarterback, including three interceptions that doomed his offense and a fumble caused by that punishing blow by Morrison that set up yet another score by the Gators that effectively ended Florida State's hopes at a comeback.
The prelude to Manuel's fumble was ugly, but the blame was shared. Florida State's offense could muster nothing, and the myriad turnovers kept the defense on the field beyond the point of exhaustion. Only a late field goal put FSU on the scoreboard before the half, and Florida went to the locker room with a 13-3 lead.
In the third quarter, however, everything changed. The lights flipped on, the Gators shot themselves in the foot repeatedly, and Florida State's defense dominated. A touchdown throw to Nick O'Leary closed the gap, a 1-yard run by Manuel gave FSU the lead and a Dustin Hopkins' field goal added some insurance. The tide had turned, but not for long.
Florida State's first drive of the fourth quarter was a crucial one. Florida had just booted a field goal to pull within four and regain a measure of momentum, but the Seminoles were ready to answer.
On first down near midfield, Manuel was quickly pressured. He took off toward the line of scrimmage, hoping to make a play with his feet. Instead, he met a duo of Florida defenders and refused to go down quietly. That left Manuel prone as Morrison delivered the hit -- with the quarterback tumbling to the ground and the football bouncing away.
Florida recovered, and as Manuel underwent a battery of tests on the sideline to determine if he'd suffered a concussion, it took just one play for the Gators to cash in.
Mike Gillislee rushed for a 37-yard touchdown to regain the lead 23-20, and Manuel still was woozy when Florida State got the ball back. Clint Trickett entered, but he was cold and so was the offense. A handoff went nowhere, and Trickett was pressured heavily on the next two plays. FSU went three-and-out, and Florida scored again on the ensuing drive. A 4-point lead turned into a 10-point deficit in the matter of just five minutes, and it all started with Manuel's ill-advised scramble and a game-changing fumble.
"It was not one of his better performances," Jimbo Fisher said afterward in an obvious understatement.
Manuel offered little other than some vague descriptions of a hit to the head -- no flag was thrown on the play -- and regret over the outcome.
He did return from the injury on the next drive, but by that time it was too late. The defense was gassed, and Florida added another TD. Manuel's final touchdown run as time expired did nothing to alter the outcome, erase the pain or make up for the fact that FSU had lost a winnable game to the best opponent it faced all season.
Still, no players wanted to blame Manuel when it was over.
"He's a warrior," Kenny Shaw said. "Nobody would even think about coming back after the shot he took. He gave it his all. I can do nothing but respect him for that."