TALLAHASSEE — EJ Manuel acknowledged the cheers, but the Florida State quarterback kept his head down as he walked out of the lights of Doak Campbell Stadium for the last time of his polarizing career, leaving behind a performance that alternated between bad and valiant but ended in four dooming turnovers and a 37-26 loss to Florida.
"My mistakes," Manuel said. "I will put it on myself."
He faltered early on senior night. Coach Jimbo Fisher said Manuel missed a signal for his blockers on the Seminoles' fifth play from scrimmage. That helped the Gators pressure him into forcing a bad pass, which Gator safety Matt Elam intercepted.
Manuel threw two more picks in the first 32 minutes, one on a poor read and another on an overthrow. That gave one of the most accurate passers in ACC history three interceptions for the second time in his career.
"Turnovers is what hurt us tonight," Manuel said, "and that's on me. I can't blame anyone else."
After his miscues helped UF to a 13-0 lead, Manuel led a comeback. He lobbed a 6-yard touchdown to tight end Nick O'Leary with 10:27 left in the third quarter, cutting the deficit to 13-10.
On his next drive, Manuel rolled outside untouched for a 1-yard touchdown that gave the 'Noles the lead, which they extended to 20-13 late in the third.
"The crowd was back on our side," he said. "One more score, we feel like the game would have been over with."
Instead, a Manuel miscue turned the game in the Gators' favor. After the Seminoles' lead was cut to three, Manuel tried to turn upfield. A thundering hit by linebacker Antonio Morrison knocked the wind out of Manuel — and FSU's sideline — and jarred the ball loose.
UF recovered and Mike Gillislee's 37-yard touchdown run on the next play gave the Gators the lead for good with 11:01 left.
"That's something he's done a great job of, taking care of the football," Fisher said. "Tonight he had four critical turnovers in the game."
After the jarring hit, Manuel sat out the next series with an abdominal injury but returned and scrambled for a 22-yard score on the game's final play.
But his 18-of-33 passing performance was the third-worst of his career, after an 8-of-16 showing against Duke last month and last season's 6-of-13 outing against UF.
"It's tough," said Manuel, who threw for 182 yards and rushed for 54. "We lost the game. I wanted to finish strong."
Times staff writer Matt Baker can be reached at [email protected]