BLACKSBURG, Va. - Jimbo Fisher deflated his cheeks with a sigh, shook hands with the opponents then embraced his smiling, bruised up, grass-smothered quarterback at the 18-yard line.
The sequence summed up the night: Two parts relief, another part jubilation.
Neither Fisher or EJ Manuel brought their best game. Virginia Tech played inspired defense and outplayed its record on national television. But just when Blacksburg was turning into Raleigh revisited, Fisher worked his magic and Manuel was clutch. Trailing 22-20, Manuel would find Rashad Greene on a 39-yard touchdown with 40 seconds left to lift Florida State to a 28-22 comeback win over the Hokies at Lane Stadium on Thursday night.
"Nobody was flustered, nobody was afraid," Manuel said. "We all knew what we needed to do. We feel like we're built for things like that, and it showed (Thursday)."
Despite spotty offense thwarted by the Hokies' defensive effort, FSU found itself holding a 20-10 lead midway through the third quarter. Then came another swell of bumbling execution, FSU's three-possession wave that included two punts and a safety that would eventually put it behind 22-20 with 2:19 left. That's when Manuel took charge, leading FSU (9-1, 6-1 ACC) on a 10-play, 68-yard drive capped by Greene's catch and run.
Manuel, who was harassed in the backfield all night leading to five sacks, went 4-of-6 passing for 66 yards on the final possession to win it.
"EJ took a beating back there, he had some bad plays but he stood in there and still made the plays he had to do and I think that's what great players so and good quarterbacks do," said Fisher, who has led FSU to its first 9-1 mark since 2000. "They're able to find ways to win when it's not you're a game. But I feel very good to come out of there with a win."
The final drive was the pretty in an otherwise ugly performance. The Seminoles posted a season-worst 311 yards of offense, went 3-of-14 on third down and rushed for minus-15 yards, FSU's worst ground output since at least 1973, as far back as the program's records go.
"We had all kinds of mistakes, there's no doubt, but we were able to create enough big plays in the passing game," Fisher said.
Still, at a venue where Virginia Tech is 11-3 on Thursday nights, Florida State held the lead for most of the game, starting from the opening possession, a 52-yard field goal from Dustin Hopkins. The Hokies (4-6 2-4 ACC) took a brief 10-6 lead in the second quarter, then rallied from 10 down on a 5-yard touchdown run by quarterback Logan Thomas late in the third quarter and the safety to cut its deficit to 20-19 with 6:59 to play. Cody Journell grabbed VT's second lead of the game when he poked a 21-yard field goal through to go up 22-20 with 2:19 to go.
Florida State's rough numbers and shaky performance wiped away on the crossing route to Greene, who rubbed off another receiver, got a downfield block from receiver Greg Dent and got to the corner of the end zone.
"I was fighting hard to get into the end zone," said Greene, who led FSU with six catches for 125 yards and two scores.
Playing in his home state for the first time in college, Manuel, a Virginia Beach, Va. native, brought the fight too. The touchdown was his first game winner and the 326 yards on 25-of-42 passing marked his fifth career 300-yard game. He overcame missed throws and an early interception on the goal line to rally.
It led to a crucial road win. It led to Florida State all but wrapping up a berth in the ACC Championship, needing only at win at lowly Maryland next week to clinch it. And it all led to an embrace between coach and player on the 18-yard line that capped and encompassed a topsy-turvy night in Blacksburg.
"I told him that why I ride him like I do, like I push him like I do and he pushes (his team)," Fisher said of their post-touchdown conversation. "He understands it."