ATLANTA - Most of the attention leading up to the Chick-fil-A Bowl was on whether Florida State would have its starting quarterback. It turns out they didn't need him.
With Christian Ponder missing for nearly three quarters after taking a hard hit early in the game, FSU's defense grabbed the spotlight forcing a season-high five turnovers. That and the hard running of Chris Thompson and gutsy play of back-up quarterback E.J. Manuel carried the Seminoles to a 26-17 win over South Carolina in a a battle between the ACC and SEC runner-ups on Friday night in front of a nearly full Georgia Dome. Dustin Hopkins kicked four field goals to tie an FSU bowl record that he set in the Gator Bowl last year and Manuel fired a fourth-quarter touchdown pass to seal the outcome.
FSU (10-4), which came in as a three-point underdog, has its first 10-win season since 2003 and denied South Carolina (9-5) of what would have been its second 10-win in its school history. Making the upset even sweeter is the fact it came against Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier, who coached rival Florida from 1990-2001.
"The seniors have been through so much and they laid the foundation for this, 10 wins and putting us back in the national spotlight," said FSU head coach Jimbo Fisher after behind handed the bowl trophy in a ceremony at midfield. "To our underclassmen … this is only the beginning."
Two of those underclassmen, sophomores Chris Thompson and Greg Reid, were voted the offensive and defensive MVPs of the game, on a young team that only had eight scholarship seniors.
With a concussion ending Ponder's night early in the second quarter, the FSU offense turned to the run game and Thompson, who turned a career-high 25 carries into 148 rushing yards, including a 27-yard touchdown run that gave FSU a 13-0 lead in the second quarter. Much of Thompson's yardage came after contact or making defenders miss.
"I really surprised myself today," Thompson said. "That ACC title loss (FSU fell to Virginia Tech, 44-33, on Dec. 4) really bothered me real bad and I knew I had to be determined. We knew we had to run the ball to win this game."
Reid forced two fumbles that 'Noles recovered, the first of which may have been the play of the game. On the South Carolina's opening drive, star running back Marcus Lattimore caught a short pass and as he turned to go upfield, Reid drilled him with a massive hit in the chest. The ball was jarred loose and picked up by linebacker Kendall Smith who raced through a series of blocks for a 46-yard return. That play set up a 29-yard field goal from Hopkins that gave the 'Noles an early 3-0 lead.
Lattimore wouldn't return and was taken to a hospital with a concussion. It was the first time he had fumbled this season.
Reid, who was playing in his home state in college for the first time, also had punt returns of 28 and 25 yards, broke up a career-high four passes and had five tackles.
"I just carried the team and tried to make plays not for me but for everybody on the team," Reid said.
Despite losing Lattimore so early, South Carolina came back and cut the deficit to 19-17 on a 7-yard touchdown run by Brian Maddox in the fourth quarter.
But, FSU answered with a 13-play, 63-yard drive that ended on a 3rd-and-goal from the South Carolina 7-yard line. Manuel dropped back, escaped pressure by rolling to his right and fired a pass into the back of the end zone and into the hands of a streaking Taiwan Easterling with 5:27 left. A Hopkins' extra point was then tacked on to produce the final score.
FSU's defense then forced a turnover on downs on South Carolina's next possession to end its final threat.
South Carolina quarterback Stephen Garcia was picked off three times and Reid once stripped the ball out of the hands of star receiver Alshon Jeffrey, who finished with a game-high nine catches for 130 yards.
Ponder looked erratic early on, completing just one of his first four passes. The senior took a hard hit on a scramble near the goal line. On the next play, a 4th-and-1 from the Gamecocks' 2-yard line, his short pass to a wide-open Lonnie Pryor fell woefully short and into the turf. That was Ponder's last play and he was later ruled to have suffered a concussion and spent the second half of his final college game in street clothes.
Hopkins made all four of his field goal attempts (29, 35, 45 and 48).
South Carolina kicker Spencer Lanning hit a 40-yard field goal on the final play of the second half to cut FSU's lead to 13-3.
FSU had not forced five turnovers in a game since facing BYU in 2009.