Top 5 moments: Joyner's return

December, 10, 2012
12/10/12
12:00
PM ET
With 2012 winding to a close, we're counting down the five biggest moments of the past season for Florida State. Starting off at No. 5: Lamarcus Joyner's 90-yard kick return against Clemson.

In the end, there were myriad highlights, and the list of heroes on both sides of the ball was extensive. But in what proved to be the biggest win of the season for Florida State, the play that defined the Seminoles' come-from-behind win over Clemson in Week 4 came on special teams.

Through the first three games of the season, Florida State's defense allowed just one score, which meant Lamarcus Joyner had enjoyed precious few opportunities to return kicks. Midway through the third quarter against Clemson, however, Joyner finally found some room to run, and his 90-yard kick return swung the momentum in the game.

“That was a big play there. That ignited us," Jimbo Fisher said. "That was a tremendous play. In the first half we struggled on special teams but in the second half, we took over.”

With 7:07 to play in the quarter, Clemson had just booted a field goal to take a 10-point lead, the fifth time the Tigers had scored in nine possessions. FSU didn't just need a touchdown -- it needed one quickly if it was going to mount a late rally.

Joyner delivered. Almost.

The junior settled under the kickoff at the goal line and charged upfield. He dodged a handful of defenders before slashing down the field to the Clemson 10-yard line, where he was finally brought down. The 90-yard return was the longest by an FSU returner since 2008, and it was just the second of at least 90 yards not to result in a touchdown.

But while Joyner didn't find the end zone, the play completely changed the tenor of the game.

Florida State scored two plays later on a 9-yard pass from EJ Manuel to Rashad Greene -- then scored again on its next three drives, eventually winning 49-37 to take command of the division and, temporarily at least, secure some national attention.

Looking back, the glow of the Clemson game wore off rather quickly, given that FSU fell on the road two weeks later and never quite regained the same momentum it had in the immediate aftermath of the win over the Tigers. The Clemson win was, in many ways, the high-water mark of 2012.

By Monday, sophomore cornerback Nick Waisome was being lauded for his ability to shut down Clemson star Sammy Watkins, Chris Thompson and James Wilder Jr. were hailed as the perfect thunder-and-lightning combination to ignite the Seminoles' running game, and Manuel, who threw for 380 yards and two touchdowns, rocketed into the Heisman discussion -- with Fisher quickly undercutting the buzz by calling his quarterback a "hunting dog" rather than a "show dog."

There was plenty of love to go around after the big win, but Joyner's game-changing play largely got lost in the shuffle. He didn't score, and even the ensuing touchdown didn't give FSU the lead. But it was a moment that changed how the game felt. Before the return, Clemson had all the momentum, and FSU was grasping at straws simply to keep pace. After the return, everyone in the stadium felt the game belonged to the Seminoles.

"The kickoff return was huge -- just a huge momentum swing in the game," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. "It kind of lit a fire for them over there."

The fire went out two weeks later at NC State, but had the season gone a bit differently, and had FSU followed through on its preseason promise, Joyner's 90-yard return might have been the play that set up a national-championship campaign. As it is, it remains one of the year's top moments.

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