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Chick-fil-A victory bittersweet for FSU

Photo by Daniel Kay

Photo by Daniel Kay

ATLANTA -- Jimbo Fisher hoped the Chick-fil-A Bowl would be a final bow for senior Christian Ponder.

Instead, the game provided a reminder of who will take over for the three-year starter in 2011.

EJ Manuel threw a fourth-quarter touchdown pass to stop a South Carolina rally and lead Florida State to a 26-17 victory over the turnover-plagued Gamecocks on Friday night.

Manuel took over after Ponder left early in the second quarter because of a concussion. The sophomore appears ready to assume the starting role next season.

"EJ is special," said Fisher, the first-year coach. "He's going to be a real good football player."

Dustin Hopkins kicked four field goals to help the No. 23 Seminoles (10-4) reach 10 victories for the first time since 2003.

No. 19 South Carolina (9-5), which was seeking its first 10-win season since 1984, lost star running back Marcus Lattimore when he was hit hard on the Gamecocks' first drive. Coach Steve Spurrier's team committed five turnovers.

With Ponder returning from a right elbow injury, it was not clear this week which quarterback would start.

Manuel said he hoped to start but added, "I understood the situation. Chris has been a great player here at Florida State. But when I got in I told the guys it's not about me, it's about the seniors."

Ponder, who completed only one of five passes for 6 yards, badly underthrew a fourth-down pass from the South Carolina 2 early in the second quarter. Manuel took over on the Seminoles' next possession.

"I hate it for Christian," 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."

Fisher said Ponder sustained the concussion when he was hit on the play before his fourth-down incompletion.

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.

"EJ stepped up pretty well, said Chris Thompson, who ran for 147 yards and a touchdown. "He came in and talked like something I never heard EJ talk before. He just had a bunch of intensity. You could tell he had a passion for it. He wanted to get in the end zone real bad. We just knew we had to do what we needed to do for EJ to make a play for us."

Manuel has a knack for postseason success. He was the MVP of the Seminoles' Gator Bowl win over West Virginia to end the 2009 season.

Hopkins tied his own school record for a bowl, and the four field goals also matched the Chick-fil-A Bowl record.

Stephen Garcia, who threw 11 interceptions in 13 games leading up to the bowl, had passes 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.