Ponder or Manuel?

The Gamecocks know they will face Florida State in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. They don't know who will be at quarterback for the Seminoles. Regular starter Christian Ponder is battling an elbow injury and is questionable. Should the Senior not be able to go, it will be Sophomore EJ Manuel under center for the 'Noles

After a long, grueling 13 game season and four months of non-stop practice, the South Carolina football team finally got a brief break from football to get some rest and focus on exams. With exams now over and no school until January, the team hit the practice field on a chilly, rainy afternoon in Columbia to prepare for the Chick-fil-A Bowl on December 31st against Florida State. It was the first of seven straight days of practice before the team takes off for Christmas and heads to Atlanta.

"It's definitely good for healing," South Carolina defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward said. "(It's) a long season. Guys having a couple weeks off from practice and study for finals and keep everybody eligible - it seems it's going to be that way - so I think it's been good for them to rest."

While the time off from football has been good for the team physically, the performance in the SEC Championship game has been hanging over the team mentally.

"When we lose we take it to heart because we take football seriously and there's a lot of pride in what we do," defensive back Akeem Auguste said. "It's like our job and when we go out there and disappoint everybody and play like we're not supposed to it looks bad on us."

The Gamecocks lost to the Auburn Tigers in their first appearance at the SEC Championship game, 56-17. The poor performance by the defense is still painful.

"I'm still kind of hurting from that game but it's done," defensive tackle Ladi Ajiboye said. "They won the game and they're going to the National Championship (game) and we're in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. All I can do is worry about Florida State. We're going to get through this thing. I know some of my teammates probably still hurt too, but we're a tough team so we're going to get over it and focus on a tough Florida State team."

The Gamecocks will be asked to stop a high-scoring 9-4 Seminole team that is averaging 32 points per game behind a balanced attack. Florida State ran the ball 455 times in 2010 and passed 376 times. The 'Noles averaged 168 rushing yards with 26 touchdowns and averaged 219 yards in the air and 23 touchdowns.

"They're an explosive offense," Ward said. "They're going to be multiple - give you pro formations, spread you out with four wides - and they're going to use their athletes against yours. It's going to be a great challenge for us on defense."

The Seminoles may be a little more predictable depending on who plays quarterback. Senior Christian Ponder has battled an elbow injury for weeks and was unavailable for the ACC Championship game, a 44-33 loss to Virginia Tech. Ponder also missed Florida State's victory over Clemson.

Ponder is 183-for-294 throwing the ball 2010 for 2,038 yards and 20 touchdowns with eight interceptions. Ponder had two of his best games in wins over North Carolina and rival Florida. Ponder was 24-of-34 for 264 yards and three touchdowns against the Tar Heels, and was 16-of-24 for 221 yards and three touchdowns in the victory of their bitter rival.

If Ponder is unable to play the Gamecocks will get a taste of another dual-threat quarterback in EJ Manuel. The redshirt Sophomore has played in nine games this season, but did not record stats in three of those games against BYU, Virginia and Miami.

In the two games Ponder was unavailable, Manuel proved that he is capable of leading the Seminole offense. In the 16-13 victory over Clemson, Manuel was 15-of-24 passing for 210 yards and a touchdown while rushing for 71 yards on 15 carries and a touchdown.

After Clemson tied the game at 13 with just 53 seconds remaining, Manuel was asked to drive his team down the field for a potential game-winning field goal. Manuel was 3-of-4 on the drive for 33 yards, including an 18-yard completion to set up the game-winning 55-yard field goal from Dustin Hopkins to win the game.

In last week's ACC Championship game against Virginia Tech Manuel had a great passing night, completing 23-of-31 passes for 288 yards and a touchdown but also threw two costly interceptions. The Hokies were able to keep him inside the pocket the entire night, limiting Manuel to nine yards on 11 carries.

For the season, Manuel is 54-of-78 for 777 yards and three touchdowns with four interceptions. He has carried the ball 34 times for 124 yards and a touchdown.

"Ponder is a better passer, but the other young man can throw the ball as well," Ward said. "They do a little more running with 3 (Manuel) than they do with 7 (Ponder), but both are great quarterbacks in their system."

The former rivals when both teams were independent will meet for the 19th time with the Seminoles holding a commanding 15-3 record in the series. The teams have not met since 1991, the year prior to joining their current conferences.

"It's going to be a new experience - the first time I've ever played Florida State - so I'm looking forward to it," defensive end Devin Taylor said. "This time I think we'll come out and play a lot smarter and harder since we've been in that atmosphere (Georgia Dome) before. It'll be more of a homefield (advantage) than a shock."

The Gamecocks are looking forward to returning to the place where they played so poorly at to redeem themselves.

"We had a bad taste in our mouths after the game so it's great to come back to the same place and get a chance to get a victory against Florida State," Ajiboye - an Atlanta native - said. "It was a special moment for me being in the Georgia Dome because I've never been there growing up so me playing there was special. I loved it. I almost cried for real."

The Gamecocks will be hoping to break a two game bowl skid and head into next season on a positive note after losing to Iowa in the Outback Bowl two years ago and losing to UConn last season in the PapaJohn's.com Bowl.

"I feel like at the end of this year if we win we can probably be ranked in the top 10 (next season) because we've got so many people coming back," Auguste said. "It's going to be a big part of momentum going into next year."

If Carolina hopes to stop Ponder or Manuel, it will take a much better performance than the last time the Gamecocks stepped onto the field.

Gamecock Anthem Top Stories