ATLANTA -- Florida State knocked South Carolina freshman sensation Marcus Lattimore out of the Chick-fil-A Bowl on the opening possession.
"It was a great hit, but not my best ever," FSU cornerback Greg Reid said. "I can hit harder. I just wish I could get bigger."
Generously listed at 5-foot-9 and 185 pounds, the sophomore was big enough to make the difference as the Seminoles claimed their first 10-win season since 2003 in coach Jimbo Fisher's first season replacing the legendary Bobby Bowden.
Reid leveled Lattimore after a short pass on the Gamecocks' sixth play Friday night in the Seminoles' 26-17 win, causing the first fumble of the running back's career.
"He thinks he's 7-foot-3 and 380 pounds," Fisher said. "... It was a good, clean hit."
"It was a bad play for us and a big play for them," South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said.
Lattimore, who set a school record with 19 touchdowns and was SEC freshman of the year, was knocked out by the hit and suffered a cut to his mouth.
"Marcus is still at the hospital," Spurrier said. "He got hit right under the helmet and got a little bit of a concussion."
The Seminoles followed Lattimore's fumble by intercepting Stephen Garcia on South Carolina's next three possessions and bad memories were relived for the Gamecocks, who were blown out by Auburn in the SEC Championship Game at the Georgia Dome nearly four weeks ago.
Despite losing senior quarterback Christian Ponder to a concussion, the Seminoles survived a South Carolina comeback bid and set the stage for a return to national prominence.
FSU, which fell off in Bowden's final seasons, won an ACC division title while going 10-4 this season and is expected to return 16 starters.
Reid, voted the defensive MVP, is part of an FSU sophomore group that also includes running back Chris Thompson, the offensive MVP, and E.J. Manuel, who replaced Ponder at quarterback.
"Our goal next year is to go to the national championship," Reid said. "This year was like a first step. Next year we have to reach for it all."
Both teams came into the game seeking a 10th win and hoping to build for the future after reaching their conference title games. South Carolina will return 15 starters, but the Gamecocks – whose only 10-win season was in 1984 – don't have a bowl victory to build off.
Defensive linemen Anthony McCloud and Demonte McAllister didn't wait until the end of the game to give Fisher a wet ice dunking, doing it with 58 seconds left. By then, Reid was already leading FSU fans in the chop from atop a team bench.
Manuel, who filled in for Ponder in the Gator Bowl a year ago and led the Seminoles to a victory in Bowden's final game, turned in an able relief job again and set the stage to be a full-time starter next season.
"I had to be ready," Manuel said. "I couldn't let the seniors down."
Manuel was 11-of-15 passing for 84 yards and ran seven times for 46 yards. Modest statistics, but he got the job done.
Manuel hit Taiwan Esterling for a 7-yard touchdown pass with 5:27 remaining after the Gamecocks had pulled within 19-17 on a 7-yard TD run by Brian Maddox early in the fourth quarter.
"E.J. is special," Fisher said. "He's going to be really special player."
Ponder, who had come back from a sore elbow to play in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, was hurt on a failed fourth-down play with FSU up 6-0, but stayed in the game the next possession before giving way to Manuel.
The senior was 1-of-5 passing for six yards, hardly the way he wanted to end his college career. "I felt bad for him," Manuel said. "I know how hard he worked and how much he wanted to play."
Manuel took FSU to a touchdown on his second possession, breaking off a 32-yard run before Thompson scored from 27 yards out. Thompson finished with 147 yards on 25 carries.
FSU led 16-3 after Dustin Hopkins kicked his third of his four field goals early in the third quarter, but South Carolina didn't fold.
After an interception, the Gamecocks drove 92 yards to cut the deficit to six points with 3:49 left in the third quarter. Spurrier turned to his bag of tricks, having slot receiver Ace Sanders throw back to Garcia for a 3-yard TD. But Hopkins kicked a 45-yard field goal with nine seconds left in the quarter.
The Gamecocks made it interesting in the fourth quarter, but couldn't complete the comeback.
The bowl loss was the third straight for South Carolina and Garcia has struggled in all of them. He has one more year of eligibility, but Spurrier indicated that backup Connor Shaw will get a chance to win the job next year as a sophomore.
Garcia was 19-of-34 passing for 243 yards, but the three interceptions were costly. The Gamecocks also lost a second-half fumble, giving them five turnovers. FSU's only turnover was a Manuel interception.
Spurrier just finished his sixth season as South Carolina after a stint in the NFL. But he still represents hated Florida to Seminoles fans. That made the victory even sweeter. FSU is now 10-5-1 against the Ol' Ball Coach.
It looks like Florida State is ready to return to national significance. Get ready to hear the Seminoles' chant -- quieted in Bowden's final seasons – loud and clear again. If Reid and his teammates have their say, the chop is ready to make a comeback.