The Associated Press
ATLANTA – EJ Manuel threw a fourth-quarter touchdown pass to stop a South Carolina rally and lead Florida State to a 26-17 victory against the turnover-plagued Gamecocks in the Chick-fil-A Bowl on Friday night.
Chris Thompson ran for 147 yards and a touchdown and Dustin Hopkins kicked four field goals for the No. 23 Seminoles (10-4), who reached 10 wins for the first time since 2003. Hopkins tied his own school record for a bowl and the four field goals also matched the Chick-fil-A Bowl record.
Manuel took over for senior quarterback Christian Ponder, who left early in the second quarter with a concussion. No. 19 South Carolina lost running back Marcus Lattimore when he was hit hard on the Gamecocks’ first drive.
“I hate it for Christian,” Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said. “He got dinged on the back of his head. He came off and he was kind of out of it a little bit. I hate that because of what he means to us but EJ, oh boy, I’m glad he’s on our team.”
Manuel completed 11 of 15 passes for 84 yards and a touchdown and had seven carries for 46 yards. He was 7-for-7 passing on the fourth-quarter touchdown drive.
“Man, I was so happy,” Manuel said. “We weren’t moving the ball like we wanted to. We weren’t getting touchdowns. We were getting field goals instead.”
South Carolina (9-5), which was seeking its first 10-win season since 1984, committed five turnovers. Stephen Garcia threw three first-half interceptions and Lattimore and Alshon Jeffery lost fumbles to leave the Gamecocks trailing 16-3 in the third quarter.
Garcia recovered to lead two long touchdown drives that trimmed Florida State’s lead to 19-17 before Manuel answered with the 7-yard scoring pass to Taiwan Easterling.
Florida State cornerback Greg Reid, whose hits caused the fumbles by Lattimore and Jeffery, deflected a fourth-down pass by Garcia with 3:23 remaining.
Garcia completed 19 of 34 passes for 243 yards and also scored on a nifty play in the third. On a third-down play from the Florida State 3, Garcia threw a screen pass to Ace Sanders, who threw back across the field to Garcia alone in the right side of the end zone.
The Seminoles answered with Hopkins’ fourth field goal, this time from 45 yards, to push the lead to nine. Hopkins also kicked four field goals in the Seminoles’ Gator Bowl win over West Virginia to end the 2009 season.
Garcia responded by leading a 79-yard drive, capped by Brian Maddox’s 7-yard TD run. Garcia helped set up the score with a 29-yard pass to Jeffery.
Reid’s hit on Lattimore knocked the freshman out of the game with an injury announced as a cut to his mouth. But coach Steve Spurrier said after the game that Lattimore also had “a little bit of a concussion” and was taken to a hospital for stitches.
“It hurt a bit, no question about that,” Spurrier said of Lattimore’s absence. “We would have kept trying to run a little bit more, that’s for sure.”
Linebacker Kendall Smith picked up the fumble after Reid’s hit and returned it 46 yards as Lattimore remained on his back. Trainers hurried off the sideline to surround Lattimore before the play ended. He was helped off the field and had an ice pack on his chin for the Gamecocks’ next possession.
The lost fumble was the first of Lattimore’s career.
Ponder started in his return from a right elbow injury, but appeared to be less than full strength. Ponder badly underthrew a fourth-down pass from the South Carolina 2-yard line early in the second quarter and Manuel took over on the Seminoles’ next possession.
Ponder missed Florida State’s Atlantic Coast Conference championship game loss to Virginia Tech with the elbow injury.
Garcia, who threw 11 interceptions in 13 games leading up to the bowl, was picked off by Michael Harris, Kendall Smith and Xavier Rhodes in the Gamecocks’ turnover-filled first half. Including Lattimore’s lost fumble on South Carolina’s opening drive, the Gamecocks had turnovers on each of their first three possessions and four in the first half.
Spurrier said he considered making a change at quarterback.
“There’s always the thought of that but he got us this far and I thought let’s let him finish,” Spurrier said. “Stephen struggled early and then he made some pretty decent throws in the second half. It looked like we had a chance to get back in the game.”
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