ACC: 2011 Champs Bowl

Instant analysis: FSU 18, Notre Dame 14

December, 29, 2011
12/29/11
9:06
PM ET


ORLANDO, Fla. — Florida State scored 15 points in the final frame to storm back and beat Notre Dame 18-14 to win the Champs Sports Bowl. Here's how it went down:

Turning point: In a less-than-two-minute span to start the fourth quarter, Florida State made up for the first three. EJ Manuel hit Bert Reed for an 18-yard score, Nigel Bradham picked off Andrew Hendrix on the ensuing drive and Manuel then hit Rashad Greene for a 15-yard score to make it 15-14 with 13:18 left. Twelve quick points after just three through the first 45 minutes were enough for the Seminoles.

Stat of the game: Pick your poison: Ten combined penalties or four combined turnovers? This game was sloppy on both ends for three quarters, and Florida State was able to capitalize on the miscues at the end and come out victorious.

Player of the game: Greene proved a tough man to stop in the second half. He finished the game with five catches for 99 yards and a touchdown, including an outstanding 42-yard grab that he bobbled and hung onto near the sideline on a third-and-6 in the fourth quarter. (It was challenged and upheld.)

Second guessing: Tommy Rees threw two interceptions in the end zone and might have had a third if not for a spectacular touchdown grab by Michael Floyd. In a game that was dominated by both defenses, Notre Dame simply could not afford to give away its precious few opportunities.

What it means: Florida State got its ninth victory and will likely finish the season ranked. Notre Dame falls to 8-5, its same record as last season, and questions will continue to mount about the quarterback position, which has nearly as many questions to end the season as it did to begin.

Record performance: Jamoris Slaughter's two sacks were two more than he had his entire career and were a Champs Sports Bowl record. The 68,305 in attendance made up the bowl's biggest crowd since it moved to Orlando.

Less than two minutes later, FSU leads

December, 29, 2011
12/29/11
8:21
PM ET
ORLANDO, Fla. -- Florida State entered the fourth quarter trailing 14-3. Naturally, it has scored two touchdowns in the first 1:42 of the final frame, giving the Seminoles a 15-14 lead with 13:18 left.

E.J. Manuel hit Bert Reed for an 18-yard strike on the quarter's first play, Nigel Bradham picked off Andrew Hendrix four plays later and, just like that, Manuel hit Rashad Greene with a 15-yard touchdown pass on the drive's second play.

For a game lacking in offense most of the way, we have ourselves a thriller here with just more than 13 minutes left.

3Q: Notre Dame 14, FSU 3

December, 29, 2011
12/29/11
8:18
PM ET
ORLANDO, Fla. — The fourth quarter begins with the Notre Dame holding a two-possession lead over Florida State, with the Seminoles offense finally putting together a nice drive.

FSU has gained 63 yards on nine plays and has reached the Irish 21, giving the offense as good a chance to get into the end zone as it has had all night.

Notre Dame, meanwhile, could not get anything going after a productive half-opening drive that ended with Michael Floyd's circus touchdown catch.

The Seminoles defense has been as good as advertised and is capable of making a game-changing play, something it might need to do if the offense cannot keep up this newfound burst of consistency. It will be without Xavier Rhodes and Greg Reid, however, who have suffered a leg injury and concussion, respectively. That is a big blow for the Seminoles' secondary, and you wonder if Notre Dame might take some chances downfield despite having the lead the next time it gets the ball.
ORLANDO, Fla. — Bowl season has found its best play of 2011.

Michael Floyd's 5-yard touchdown grab was anything but simple, as Tommy Rees' fade pass was underthrown and nearly picked off by Greg Reid. Floyd managed to pry it loose from Reid before engaging in a juggling act — all the while absorbing a hit from Nigel Bradham just as he secured the ball.

Touchdown, Irish.

Floyd's 100th catch of the season made it 14-0 Notre Dame, which is anything but your conventional two-score lead in a game that has lacked for offensive fire power.

The Seminoles appeared to be on the verge of closing the gap after Lamarcus Joyner's 77-yard kickoff return, but the offense followed with a three-and-out that was punctuated by a — you guessed it — sack of EJ Manuel, this time by Aaron Lynch for a loss of 15.

Dustin Hopkins kicked a 42-yard field goal to get FSU on the board and cut the lead to 14-3.

The Irish offense, meanwhile, went with both quarterbacks on its first drive of the half, putting Andrew Hendrix in at the 23 yard line. He carried it three times for 18 yards before Rees entered at first-and-goal from the 5, setting up the touchdown play.

George Atkinson deserves credit for setting the Irish up so well with a 37-yard kickoff return to open the half, as well as stopping Joyner from going all the way on the ensuing kickoff.

FSU offense struggling mightily

December, 29, 2011
12/29/11
6:51
PM ET
ORLANDO, Fla. -- Four sacks, two false starts, one surrendered touchdown and 3.16 yards per play.

Not the best first half for Florida State's offense.

E.J. Manuel's 23-yard pass to Kenny Shaw helped the Seminoles reach 79 yards of offense this half, but Manuel has been running around like a madman as the Notre Dame front-seven makes its presence felt in the backfield.

As a team, FSU has 9 rushing yards on 14 carries.

Chad Abram's sneak on a fake punt went for nearly 4 yards, but that came up inches short of a first down.

The Seminoles need to get creative if they ever want to move the ball with any sort of consistency the rest of the way.

A few more pregame notes

December, 29, 2011
12/29/11
6:10
PM ET
ORLANDO, Fla. — Here are a couple of items worth nothing as we approach kickoff:

  • Ethan Johnson, Louis Nix and Aaron Lynch took reps with the first-team defensive line. This is as healthy as the group has been since the middle of the season. Johnson says he is fully recovered from a sprained right ankle that sidelined him for four games this season, and freshman end Stephon Tuitt is expected to be fine after missing the last two games because of an illness. Against an undermanned Florida State offensive line, this could be key.
  • Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher was given a one-year contract extension earlier today, locking him up through 2016.
  • This crowd is PUMPED. The fans went wild during a few pee-wee touchdowns when kids took the field before the game, and several parachuters into the stadium only amped them up even more. Hopefully the play on the field can live up to the excitement.
ORLANDO, Fla. — Greetings from the Sunshine State, where Notre Dame and Florida State will take the field in the Champs Sports Bowl just less than an hour from now.

The game certainly has a different feel for a December bowl. It is a sellout, for one. Fans from both schools packed the parking lots from the early-afternoon on, an impressive showing for a mid-week, late-afternoon contest.

The game also has seemed to draw more interest than its sister bowl, the Capital One Bowl, to be played here Tuesday between Nebraska and South Carolina.

Notre Dame is officially the home team, and the Irish players are wearing their blue jerseys with names on the back for just the third time in school history, after doing it in the 2008 Hawaii bowl and 1973 Orange Bowl.

The seats are filling up as fans take in a pair of pee-wee games on the field right now. Don't go anywhere, as we'll have complete coverage from the main event throughout the evening.

Video: Champs Sports Bowl preview

December, 29, 2011
12/29/11
4:54
PM ET


ESPN.com's Matt Fortuna previews Florida State-Notre Dame.

Video: Champs Sports Bowl preview

December, 29, 2011
12/29/11
3:08
PM ET

Todd McShay breaks down the players to watch in the matchup between Florida State and Notre Dame.

Bowl offers redemption for storied teams

December, 29, 2011
12/29/11
10:33
AM ET
A pre-January bowl meeting and regular seasons that failed to meet lofty preseason expectations have provided no hiding for Brian Kelly and Jimbo Fisher. Just look at Wednesday, when the second-year head coaches were asked during their final pre-bowl press conferences about restoring their respective programs back to glory.

No, a Dec. 29 finale in the Champs Sports Bowl is not what Notre Dame or Florida State had in mind when summer talk focused on BCS bowl berths and returns to greatness. But the pair of 8-4 teams have found consolation in the opportunity to take down the other and go into 2012 on a high note.

[+] EnlargeBrian Kelly
Matt Cashore/US PresswireNotre Dame coach Brian Kelly cited a bowl game's value in building team chemistry.
"I think it starts with the ability to keep your football team together for another month," Kelly said of what it will take bring Notre Dame back to its prominent status. "The ability to build more relationships and bonds with your players. You’re still evaluating and giving opportunities to freshmen that may not have that chance to go out and prove themselves. I think there’s a lot of things that go into having a bowl game. The game itself as a win/loss is not going to change the direction of your program. Certainly it’s going to make you feel good about yourself going into the offseason, but all of those other things are much more important than actually singularly one game."

Said Fisher, in response to a similar question: “Recruiting, a little bit of luck, and staying healthy. You have to understand the culture. It’s not been two years or three years since we’ve been on the top, it’s been 10. That’s something we have to change. I’ve said all year that I’ve been pleased with how our players practice. Their effort, their tenacity, they break out the distractions. And then the football gods have to be on your side a little bit, too. Sometimes the ball’s got to bounce your way. We’ve got a good recruiting class this year and I think we’ll have another great year next year. And hopefully a great game tomorrow.”

Ten turnovers and two mind-boggling defeats to start 2011 all but sealed Notre Dame's fate for Orlando, Fla., from the early going. An 8-2 finish that featured a brief return to the national rankings showed what the Irish were capable of, but the sour taste from an 0-2 start lingered.

Florida State, meanwhile, saw a 2-0 start give way to three consecutive losses, dampening its BCS-bowl hopes and, like the Irish, leaving many to wonder what could have been.

The offensive-minded Kelly saw the Irish notch at least 500 yards of offense five different times this season, as they averaged better than 45 more yards per game than a season ago. But that was tempered by 26 turnovers and the fact Notre Dame is closing the season with another quarterback controversy (Tommy Rees or Andrew Hendrix), albeit a different one from the beginning of the campaign (Rees or Dayne Crist).

"I would look at it as we’re still evolving," Kelly said. "From last year to this time there has been a process of evolution for our entire offense and it’s still ongoing. It’s ongoing as we speak relative to our offensive players understanding our system and of course in the recruiting area.”

The Seminoles saw their growth on the defensive side of the ball, where they finished the regular season sixth in the nation in total defense, fourth in points allowed and second against the run — way up in all categories from last season (when they finished 39th, 24th and 26th, respectively).

“Are we disappointed about the wins?" Fisher said. "Yes, we wish we would’ve won more games. I mean, you’d like to win them all. But for a young football team to deal with distractions, with criticisms, the things that come with not winning as many games as you’d like to, they never lost faith in each other. In fact, it maybe made them closer. I feel very good about the future.”

But the future must wait until this season is finished, and Thursday's matchup will provide one last opportunity for each side's seniors to end their careers on high notes.

And for Notre Dame, it's a chance to notch a nine-win campaign for the first time since 2006, before any current players came aboard.

"I feel like it's all that matters," senior end Ethan Johnson said of win No. 9. "It's all that matters. It's what we're focused on right now. Everyone says you take each game as it comes. That's very true. But there's a limited amount of time you can focus on each game in a season. And for this game we've had a long time to focus on it, and we're going to stay focused on it, and we're gonna continue to work and prepare and get ready to play our best football. And there's no reason why we shouldn't do that. No reason why we're not going to do that. We're going to do that.

"We're gonna continue to focus and practice hard and have fun while we're doing it. But yeah, it's really all that matters is getting this win, especially for the seniors. For the juniors, sophomores, freshmen, high school kids coming in — we're all pulling for it and we're all just gonna do the best we can because I came here my freshman year. And I'm a guy who believes you leave something better than it was when you came. I definitely wanna do that. I wanna leave this place better than when I found it."

Champs Sports Bowl keys

December, 29, 2011
12/29/11
10:30
AM ET
Here are three keys for Florida State against Notre Dame:

1. Find the offense. The O disappeared over the final three games of the regular season, and Florida State hasn’t helped itself on third downs or with penalties. The Seminoles are last in the country with 8.17 penalties per game, costing themselves 69.25 yards per game with a total of 98 penalties this season. Only four teams in the country have more total penalties. The Noles also need to be more successful on third downs. They converted just 2-of-15 against Florida, 3-of-13 against Virginia and 4-of-11 against Miami.

2. Get pressure on quarterback Tommy Rees and cover receiver Michael Floyd. If the defense can get in Rees' face, it will disrupt Floyd’s opportunities. Floyd has 1,106 receiving yards and a school-record 95 catches. FSU’s defense is one of the best in the country, but Notre Dame’s offensive line has been one of the best at protecting its quarterback. The Irish have allowed just 13 sacks all season.

3. Continue to highlight special teams. If you’ve got it, flaunt it, and FSU has two of the nation’s best kickers in punter Shawn Powell and kicker Dustin Hopkins. Powell is averaging 47 yards per punt, a figure topped only twice in a season in ACC history. Powell leads the FBS in yards per punt, and the Noles are first in net punting as a team (42.04). Hopkins has 61 field goals and 320 points in his career.
Notre Dame has been a thorn in the ACC's side since it beat Miami in last year's Sun Bowl and reeled off three straight wins against the league this year. Overall, though, Notre Dame is 1-3 against the ACC in postseason play. Here's a quick preview of Florida State's matchup against Notre Dame in the Champs Sports Bowl:

WHO TO WATCH: Florida State’s defensive ends. The Seminoles’ defense has been outstanding this year, and it all starts up front. During the final seven regular-season games, Florida State racked up 22 sacks. This season, defensive end Brandon Jenkins has seven sacks and defensive end Bjoern Werner has six. FSU enters the bowl game No. 2 in the nation in rushing defense and held its final seven opponents to just 2.29 yards per carry. FSU is No. 9 in the nation in sacks and No. 5 in tackles for loss. Notre Dame is No. 17 in the country, though, in sacks allowed with just 1.08 per game.

WHAT TO WATCH: Florida State’s offensive line. It’s been the weak link this season, and as a result, the running game ranks No. 99 in the country and the Noles are No. 111 in sacks allowed. The Seminoles beat Florida in the regular-season finale with only 95 yards of total offense. They had four offensive touchdowns in the final three games, including just one against Miami and one against Virginia.

WHY TO WATCH: Because it’s the ACC’s best hope at a win over the Irish this year, and because it’s still Florida State and Notre Dame. Both programs had BCS bowl expectations heading into this season, but they are still two of nation’s most storied programs, rich in history and tradition. They haven’t played since 2003, when Florida State won 37-0 in South Bend. Notre Dame, though, has had the edge over the ACC this year, beating Wake Forest, Maryland and Boston College in a three-week span in November. Can the Noles stop that streak?

PREDICTION: Florida State 21, Notre Dame 17: This is significantly below the 30 points both teams are averaging this year, but Florida State’s defense will again be the difference. Even if the Noles can’t get things going again offensively, Florida State’s defense and special teams are good enough to offset it against the Irish. Notre Dame is No. 116 in the country in turnover margin, and Florida State is capable not only of forcing quarterback Tommy Rees into a turnover, but also of scoring on it.

FSU bowl injury report

December, 28, 2011
12/28/11
8:04
PM ET
Here is Florida State's injury report for the Champs Sports Bowl against Notre Dame:

Probable

WR Bert Reed (hamstring)

Questionable

OT Garrett Faircloth (hip)

WR Jarred Haggins (quadriceps)

Out

OT Andrew Datko (shoulder)

DT Darious Cummings (hand)

WR Willie Haulstead (head)

DT Moses McCray (knee)

DT Jacobbi McDaniel (ankle)

OL Henry Orelus (head)

LB Terrance Smith (foot)

OL Jacob Stanley (knee)

RB Chris Thompson (back)

S Karlos Williams (wrist)
Florida State will face Notre Dame at 5:30 p.m. ET on Thursday in the Champs Sports Bowl, and the Seminoles’ offensive struggles have been a popular storyline since the last few weeks of the regular season. I caught up with coach Jimbo Fisher on Tuesday for his take on what’s been going on with the offense:

I know you guys have been banged up, but is there anything other than the injuries that helps explain the decrease in the offensive production over the last few weeks of the regular season?

[+] EnlargeFlorida State head coach Jimbo Fisher
AP Photo/Phil SearsJimbo Fisher and Florida State are looking to turn around the ACC's fortunes agaisnt the SEC.
Jimbo Fisher: No. The last two weeks was it. We had a lot of yards against Virginia -- we had 380 yards. We didn’t execute in the red zone. We had four or five missed assignments. We had a hard time blocking up front, had some missed assignments, and the way the game was going, we played to our defense and special teams. But no, that’s it.

How much have injuries limited what you can do in the playbook?

JF: Oh, it does a lot. We’re going to probably start six true freshmen in this game here, and there will probably be eight on the field at one time. I’ve never been around a season that’s had that many. We still play well. The wear and tear on them – freshmen aren’t used to playing that much. It wears on them late in the season. In the Virginia game we didn’t score, but we moved the ball. We had 380 yards. We had two plays of 50 yards that were called back. The Florida game is the one we played poorly in.

I know you’ve been asked a lot about calling the plays. Why do you like that responsibility?

JF: That’s what got me the job. Why do you stop doing what got you there and you’re successful in? I’ll always call the plays. Let me ask you this: How were we the first nine or 10 games of the year when we were 36 points a game and 420 yards a game. What’s the difference?

Injuries, I guess.

JF: That’s just part of ball, it happens. How did Green Bay get beat 19-14? They score 40 points in every other game they played. That’s just how it is sometimes. You have injuries and you have bad days. But I won’t give that up.

I was just wondering from an organizational perspective, with all of the other stuff you have to do, why would you personally want to add another job to your list?

JF: It brings a lot of recruits in, me still coaching the quarterbacks, and that’s always something we’ve done well. In time, maybe in years to come down the road maybe you do change, but for right now I have no ambition to (change). Coach Bowden did it his whole time up until 1993. He did it for 16 years while he was the head coach at Florida State.

Yeah, and Friedgen did it for a while, too.

JF: Steve Spurrier does, Paul Johnson does. There’s a ton of guys who still do it, a bunch of them.

I know that playing freshmen can pay off in the long run, but how much of a concern is it now in the bowl game?

JF: I think we’ve played well, had a good week of practice, had a good month of practice. They’ve played well and had good practices, so we’ll see. People don’t realize, we’ve started anywhere from three to six freshmen all year on offense because of injuries. We’ve lost nine guys for the year, six on the offensive line. It’s been that way all year.

If there was one thing you guys needed to do better offensively against Notre Dame, what would it be?

JF: Just being assignment sound. That’s what got us against Florida a little bit. We had some missed calls up front, missed assignments. We put a hat on a hat we’ll be fine.

One other thing I wanted to ask you was how important a win would be for the program heading into the offseason?

JF: It is, but like I said, winning a bowl game is great and it can give you momentum during the offseason, but it doesn’t dictate how things happen the next year. We beat South Carolina last year in the bowl game and South Carolina had a great year. They stayed relatively healthy except for one guy, Marcus Lattimore. We had the momentum and got everyone hurt. Winning a bowl game is important, but it doesn’t mean what you do the next year.
There has been talk of Florida State using the Champs Sports Bowl as a springboard into 2012, a way for the Seminoles to brush off the disappointment of unachieved goals this year and reset the bar for next season.

None of that will happen, though, unless coach Jimbo Fisher can find a way to squeeze more offense out of what appears to be a nearly empty tube.

Just one season after winning the Atlantic Division title, Fisher’s play calling has been called out by fans. The offensive line has taken its fair share of criticism, too, and it’s easy to see why: FSU enters Thursday’s game against Notre Dame with the nation’s No. 99 rushing offense, ranked No. 111 in sacks allowed and No. 73 in total offense. The Seminoles beat Florida in the regular-season finale with only 95 yards of total offense. They had four offensive touchdowns in the final three games, including just one against Miami and one against Virginia.

While defense is the hallmark of a championship team -- and there’s no doubting the Noles’ defense -- it’s only part of the equation. And if Florida State fans are going to expect more, the Noles will have to produce more against the Irish.

It’s been a perplexing end to what was supposed to be a productive season for first-year starting quarterback EJ Manuel and his supporting cast. FSU entered the season with depth at running back, experience on the offensive line, and Manuel had big-game experience as a backup. Part of the problem can be attributed to injuries.

The extended losses of senior linemen Andrew Datko and David Spurlock have led FSU to start six different offensive line combinations. No single group has been together in the same position for more than three consecutive games. It’s now possible that as many as four freshmen will play against Notre Dame. Manuel was also injured earlier this season, and a total of 13 starters or key reserves have missed a combined 64 games. Six FSU offensive linemen have missed games this season, and running Chris Thompson, the team’s leading rusher in 2010, suffered a season-ending back injury in the middle of the season.

“I’ve never been through injuries like we’ve been through this year,” Fisher said. “In the end it gave a lot of young guys time to develop and play. Hopefully we’ll play well in the game and I think going into the spring and hopefully next year, it makes it look very promising.”

It will only look that way, though, if Florida State wins -- and manages more than 95 yards in the process.

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