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All on the quarterback

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- EJ Manuel rushed 22 yards into the end zone as the final seconds ticked off the clock. It was the final touchdown he'll score on his home field, but it meant nothing.

On the Florida sideline, purple Gatorade dripped off of Will Muschamp as his arms flailed in the signature chomping motion, his team surrounding him in euphoric celebration after the Gators' 37-26 victory on Saturday.

On the FSU sideline, the search for consolation began. A bruised and battered team slumped off the field knowing so many opportunities had slipped away, and no one shouldered the burden more than Manuel.

"He was very emotional before the game, he was tore up during it," Jimbo Fisher said. "It meant a lot to him. He wanted to play very well, very badly. And sometimes you try too hard."

Manuel exchanged hugs with teammates and a handful of Florida players. Fans leaned perilously over the railings to offer encouraging slaps on his shoulder pads as he trudged through the tunnel and into the locker room. His teammates offered a staunch defense after it was over, calling Manuel "a warrior" and "a leader" without ever mentioning the four turnovers he coughed up.

It was the final time Manuel will play at Doak Campbell Stadium, a place he'd won 13 games as a starter, and it perfectly illustrated the dichotomy of his Florida State career -- hero and villain, savior and scapegoat, loved and hated.

Manuel was responsible for all three of Florida State's touchdowns Saturday, but he also threw three interceptions for the first time since 2009, the second start of his career.

Manuel forced his way back onto the field after a devastating hit early in the fourth quarter, but that hit also forced a momentum-changing fumble that signaled the end of FSU's short-lived opportunity to earn its signature win of the season.

Manuel shouldered the blame for the loss when it was over, a measure both of his leadership and his responsibility for what unfolded on the field.

"I think my mistakes, anytime there's an interception, it goes in my column as far as stats," Manuel said. "So I will put it on myself."

Who else to put it on?

Certainly the defense caved late, but Bjoern Werner and Co. had fought to their limit. Thanks to the offensive miscues, Florida had nearly doubled FSU in time of possession and run nearly twice as many plays. The defense was gassed.

Fisher was lambasted for his conservative play calling following the Seminoles' first loss against NC State in October, but Saturday's was a game plan capable of winning, one that simply wasn't executed. All three interceptions fall on Manuel's shoulders -- a missed signal, a poor decision and a high throw.

"It was not one of his most stellar performances, that's for sure," Fisher said. "We've got to get him in better position, and there's some plays he's got to make."

Manuel missed a potential touchdown throw to Nick O'Leary late in the third quarter that could have put Florida State up by nine. He chose not to slide on the fourth-quarter play that gave Florida freshman Antonio Morrison a chance to change the game with a jarring hit that sent the ball to the ground and Manuel to the sideline. He took the sack on a last-gasp drive midway through the fourth quarter that may have at least made for an intriguing finish.

The burden is on Manuel's shoulders, and yet no one pointed the finger.

"He's a warrior," receiver 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."

Even that fumble-inducing hit remains controversial. It appeared a helmet-to-helmet collision, though no flag was thrown. Fisher said Manuel was hit in the stomach, and trainers feared a cracked rib. But Manuel admitted after the game he was woozy, suggested the hit was to his head, and was vague on fourth-quarter details.

Asked if coaches had wanted to pull him from the game, Manuel again shouldered the burden: "They did, but I wasn't trying to hear it," he said.

More than a half-hour passed before Manuel met with reporters. He was emotional, quiet. He offered no excuses other than a lack of execution. He pointed, as always, to the future -- an ACC championship game appearance waiting on the horizon.

A conference title would be meaningful, and Manuel will have his chance at ending on a far more palatable note. His career will be remembered for more than 60 minutes and four turnovers Saturday against Florida.

But in the immediate aftermath, it didn't feel that way, and even Manuel knew it. Those fans that shouted his name as he rose to his feet following a brutal fourth-quarter hit and the teammates who offered support in an emotional post-game locker room did little to assuage the immediate pain.

"There was a lot going through my mind at that time," Manuel said. "It's tough. We lost a game. I wanted to finish strong."