TALLAHASSEE — A week after missing a winning field goal in the final seconds and shouldering the blame for a heartbreaking loss, Florida State sophomore Dustin Hopkins found redemption.
Hopkins boomed the third-longest field goal in school history, a 55-yarder, on the final play to give the Seminoles a dramatic 16-13 win against the Clemson Tigers on Saturday night at Doak Campbell Stadium.
"After it happened last week," he said of his 40-yard miss in the 37-35 loss to North Carolina, "I was hoping I'd get the chance this week. … It works out sometimes."
Unlike last week when he trudged off the field, this time he sprinted madly to the end zone and the FSU student section — he didn't want to get "dog piled" — where he was eventually mobbed by his teammates.
And why not?
Not only did the Seminoles (7-3, 5-2) snap a two-game skid and win one in the final seconds for the first time since 1983 against Arizona State, they also remain alive for spot in the ACC championship game, though North Carolina State, 4-2 in league play, controls its destiny.
But Hopkins' heroics would not have been possible were it not for redshirt sophomore quarterback EJ Manuel.
Though he hadn't played much this season, Manuel — pressed into a starting role with star Christian Ponder nursing a right elbow injury — showed the same poise and prowess both running and throwing the football as he did late last season. He took over for Ponder for the last four games last year and led the Seminoles to a 3-1 record.
"EJ was phenomenal in the game," coach Jimbo Fisher said. "He missed a signal or two and was a little nervous at times, but (he showed) his legs and his athleticism and then he settled down and made some throws. … I was proud of the way EJ competed in the game. He never lost his poise. He never lost his composure. And I've said this all along, as a character and as a a competitor, he's a carbon copy of (No.) 7 (Ponder). He really is."
Manuel completed 15-of-24 for 210 yards and one interception and added a team-high 71 yards rushing on 15 carries.
"It wasn't me, it was a whole team effort," Manuel said.
But when the team needed him the most, he delivered like a seasoned veteran.
Following an interception by cornerback Xavier Rhodes that thwarted another drive by the Tigers (5-5, 3-4), Manuel drove the Seminoles 85 yards in 12 plays against one of the nation's stingiest defenses, capping it off with an 8-yard run to give FSU its first lead, 13-10, with 10:08 left.
The Tigers answered, and tied the score on a 29-yard field goal with 55 seconds left. A week ago against UNC, the Seminoles needed a field goal and had 44 seconds to move from the UNC 45.
This time, Manuel had 50 seconds and one timeout and he was on his own 29.
"We practice situations all the time," he said. "Honestly, it was just like practice."
He hit three big passes, including an 18-yarder to sophomore receiver Rodney Smith (he had four catches for a career-high 121 yards), and benefited from a key pass interference call on Clemson cornerback Coty Sensabaugh on another pass for Smith to give Hopkins a chance to win in dramatic fashion.
"I told him (Hopkins) the good Lord has a plan for all of us," Fisher said as he sent his sophomore onto the field with 3 seconds left. "Remember, don't worry about making the kick. Trust the process. Trust your fundamentals and kick it."
A week after his fundamentals betrayed him and he sliced a kick wide right for the second time that night, Hopkins it hard and true.
"I was thinking, actually, how awesome it would be to hit the game winner; I was thinking about last week and how disappointing it really was and I knew God had a plan," Hopkins said. "I didn't fully understand it, but I do a little more now. It made this kick that much more special."
Brian Landman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.