WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Before joining his teammates in their locker room, Florida State quarterback EJ Manuel asked a school official if he could first spend a few moments with his family and friends in the stands.
Like any Seminole was going to refuse him?
That wasn't going to happen.
"It was great to see them," he said of his parents. "And I'm glad they came to a game I was able to play in."
And win. Don't forget that.
Manuel, a redshirt freshman pressed into his first college start after Christian Ponder's season-ending injury a week ago, showed command and control in leading the Seminoles to a surprising 41-28 rout of Wake Forest in a critical game Saturday afternoon at BB&T Field.
The Seminoles (5-5, 3-4) now have a far better chance to reach six wins and extend their NCAA-best streak of bowl games to 28. They host Maryland on Saturday and end the regular season Nov. 28 at No. 1 Florida.
"I was crying," his father, Erik Manuel Sr., said of watching. "He's been prepared for the opportunity to be successful."
His son completed 15-of-20 passes for 220 yards and one touchdown and just one interception and added 45 yards on 10 runs, including a 1-yard score.
"It was doggone impressive," FSU coach Bobby Bowden said. "You're always leery about starting a freshman … but he's shown qualities that he's going to be a pretty good one. That was a heck of a start for a freshman."
Especially given the circumstances. The Seminoles had lost three straight to Wake Forest (4-7, 2-5) and few folks gave them much of a shot to end that skid without Ponder, the ACC passing leader.
"He came out and looked confident and calm and that was impressive," said Ponder, whose season ended when he separated his right shoulder making a tackle. "He got thrown into a situation and played really well. He made a lot of plays."
"That's just EJ. He's that type of guy. He's calm, cool and collected," added sophomore receiver Jarmon Fortson, who had three catches for 60 yards, including a 7-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter that put the game out of reach. "He knows what he can do on the field. After a couple of plays, he told me, 'This is going to be an easy day, right here.' "
Truth be told, Manuel said he was a bit nervous.
"But the O-line took care of me, the running backs did their job, the receivers did their job, the tight ends, and also the defense; they took a lot of pressure off of us, too, as an offense," he said.
That's not just talk. He was sacked just once and was rarely hit. The line also opened up holes for sophomore tailback Jermaine Thomas to amass 149 yards and a touchdown. Seven players caught passes. Freshman Greg Reid had a 68-yard punt return for a touchdown, freshman kicker Dustin Hopkins hit both field goals (47- and 42-yarders) and boomed most of his kickoffs to limit returns.
And yes, the defense came up with two key takeaways; junior linebacker Kendall Smith's first career interception set up Manuel's touchdown dive and a 21-7 lead, then junior cornerback Ochuko Jenije had an interception in the end zone midway through the fourth quarter to kill a Wake drive. FSU ran out the clock when, appropriately enough, Manuel powered his way for a 3-yard gain on a fourth and 2.
"It says he's a good player and he's got the chance to be a good player," Seminoles offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher said. "What he has to remember is why he had success. He just played the game. He didn't try to do things he couldn't do."
During and after the game.
Brian Landman can be reached at [email protected].com or (813) 226-3347.