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Updated: Thursday, January 2, 2003 2:12 AM EST
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(4) Georgia 26, (16) Florida St 13
Florida St. Seminoles
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NEW ORLEANS (Ticker) -- If Florida State coach Bobby Bowden thought he could reach into his bag of tricks and find a way to win without a proven quarterback, he was sadly mistaken.

Bruce Thornton returned an interception 71 yards for a touchdown and Billy Bennett capped a record-setting season with four field goals as fourth-ranked Georgia took advantage of 16th-ranked Florida State's inept offense and posted a 26-13 victory in the Sugar Bowl.

Florida State (9-5), which suffered its first five-loss season since 1981, was forced to start third-string signal-caller Fabian Walker after starter Chris Rix was declared ineligible and backup Adrian McPherson was dismissed from the team.

Walker, who threw just eight passes all season, was ineffective and the Seminoles were forced to turn to junior wide receiver Anquan Boldin at various points in the game. Neither got the job done and Bowden was handed just his seventh loss in 26 bowl games.

"When you get beat like that, there is not a lot of good things you'd like to say," Bowden said. "But I will say this for our players - I thought they fought, they fought the hard way. We went down fighting."

Florida State led 7-3 midway through the second quarter when Thornton, a junior cornerback, stepped in front of an errant pass by Walker and took it up the right sideline for the go-ahead score.

Bennett had three field goals in the second half, when Georgia (13-1) pulled away. In the process, he ran his SEC record for points in season by a kicker to 130.

Georgia coach Mark Richt, a one-time assistant under Bowden at Florida State, completed one of the best seasons in school history. The Bulldogs captured their first Southeastern Conference championship since 1982 and improved to 21-5 under Richt.

"To beat Florida State is a great feeling, since I have a great respect for the Florida State program," Richt said. "I'm so proud of those kids. They deserve to out like this."

Georgia improved to 20-15-3 in bowl competition, including 3-4 in the Sugar Bowl.

"We've made a lot of believers out of people this year," Bennett said. "We were happy, but we weren't going insane because we know it could have been bigger."

Florida State's bowl record dropped to 19-11-2.

Georgia's Musa Smith, who carried 23 times for 145 yards, was named the game's most outstanding player.

"I knew I had to run the ball hard tonight to help accomplish this goal as a team," Smith said. "My offensive line did a great job opening up holes for me to get through.

"This is a great feeling to be MVP and to beat Florida State. I was a childhood fan of the Seminoles. I watched them win the national championship and I have a great respect for that program."

Bulldogs quarterback David Greene completed 9-of-14 passes for 88 yards and backup D.J. Shockly was successful with his lone pass, finding Terrence Edwards with a 37-yard scoring strike just before the half.

Walker was 7-of-12 for 69 yards and a score but was intercepted twice and sacked three times. Boldin, who caught three passes for 34 yards and a touchdown, was 6-of-14 for 78 yards and a score. He too was sacked three times.

"We were hoping that Fabian could start and finish the game and we could use Anquan as a wideout and the would mean that Fabian was doing pretty good," Bowden said. "Once we got down to Anquan, then that was really all we had left."

After Florida State's game-opening possession stalled at the Georgia 35, Greene engineered a drive that resulted in a 24-yard field goal by Bennett.

Walker actually put the Seminoles on top 79 seconds into the second quarter when he found Boldin in the front left corner of the end zone. The scoring strike capped an eight-play, 69-yard drive.

The game remained 7-3 and Walker was driving Florida State when Thornton picked off a pass with 6:24 to go in the half and burst down the sideline. Thornton was the only returning starter in the Bulldogs' secondary from a season ago.

The Seminoles went three-and-out on their next possession and Shockley found Edwards with a touchdown toss down the right sideline for a 17-7 lead.

Edwards, who had three catches for 60 yards, finished four receptions shy of Craig Yeast's SEC career record of 208. He also finished one shy of Chris Doering's SEC record of 31 career TD receptions.

Edwards did move past Brice Hunter and became Georgia's single-season receiving yardage leader with 1,004.

On the opening possession of the second half, Greene found Michael Johnson with a 34-yard strike - setting up a 42-yard field goal by Bennett.

Walker fumbled on Florida State's next possession and Bennett converted a 25-yard attempt for a 23-7 cushion.

Boldin got the Seminoles closer with a 40-yard touchdown toss to Craphonso Thorpe on the final play of the third quarter. But Greene put together an 11-play, 62-yard drive that Bennett punctuated with a 35-yard field goal.

Among SEC players, only Alabama's Shaun Alexander - who had 144 points on 24 touchdowns in 1999 - ever has scored more points in a season than Bennett.

"I'm happy to kick the field goals," Bennett said. "I'll kick as many as they want me to."

Georgia leads the series with Florida State, 6-4-1, but the teams had not met since 1984.

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