Dec. 29, 2011
ORLANDO, Fla. -- Four true freshmen finding their groove, a hobbled quarterback, two lost defensive stars and 18 unanswered points; that about sums up what took place Thursday night at the 2011 Champs Sports Bowl.
Florida State capped off its nine-win season by defeating Notre Dame 18-14 in Orlando despite a seemingly never-ending string of setbacks.
The Seminoles entered the game without the services of three typical starters on the offensive line and were forced to charge four rookies with winning the battles in the trenches. As the game progressed and those freshmen struggled en route to an early-third quarter 14-0 advantage for the Fighting Irish, a battered and limping EJ Manuel became noticeably less-than-100-percent.
Still, those 18 unanswered second-half points were the difference. A difference that was sparked by improved second-half play by that green offensive line, a national-television outburst by rising star wide receiver Rashad Greene and a 'Noles defense that intercepted Notre Dame's rotating quarterbacks three times.
"I've said all along this team has some special character about it. And it always does. It competes, it fights, it loves each other, it stays together. No matter what people say; what people do. I've been on some great football teams and coached some great football teams that I don't know have the bond and the relationship that these guys do."
Manuel, FSU's gritty redshirt junior signal-caller, finished the night with more bruises than touchdown passes but still found Greene and Bert Reed for big fourth-quarter scoring tosses. Manuel threw for 249 yards in total, 154 of which he recorded in the second half.
As the recipient of FSU's go-ahead touchdown with 13:18 left to play combined with his game-high 99 yards receiving, Greene was named the bowl's MVP in a vote by the media in attendance. Kenny Shaw added 64 yards receiving and Devonta Freeman led FSU in rushing with 48 yards.
Florida State had just 104 yards of offense and no third-down conversions at halftime but finished the game inside the Citrus Bowl with 290 total yards and three crucial conversions that were followed by a pair of touchdowns and one of Dustin Hopkins' two field goals.
Despite allowing five sacks and countless hits on Manuel, the young line improved enough late in the second half to provide the foundation for FSU's come-from-behind win.
"The guys up front finally realized they could play," Fisher said.
While the offense was working through its growing pains, the Seminoles' defense was its dominant four-quarters self.
Lamarcus Joyner, Nigel Bradham and Terrence Brooks each had an interception with Joyner's and Brooks' takeaways occurring in the endzone when the Fighting Irish were threatening to score. Notre Dame finished the night with 280 yards of offense.
Fighting Irish quarterbacks Tommy Rees and Andrew Hendrix combined for 187 yards and the three turnovers.
Set up by the longest punt return allowed by the Seminoles all season, Notre Dame was about to punch it into the endzone for the game's first score before Bradham tipped Rees' pass and Joyner snagged the interception.
But after Joyner's 22-yard interception return, FSU gave it right back. Manuel connected with Freeman on a swing pass out of the backfield but the freshman tailback fumbled the football and Zeke Motta scooped it and scored for an early 7-0 Notre Dame lead.
Freeman's giveaway was just the second fumble of the year by a Seminoles running back.
That score would hold until halftime as both teams combined for just 195 yards and 10 punts in the opening 30 minutes.
Notre Dame may have only had 91 of those first-half yards but its first drive of the second half couldn't have been any worse for the Seminoles.
Reid's personal foul penalty helped extend the Fighting Irish's drive and then Rhodes went down with a game-ending knee injury after Floyd hauled in a pass. A few plays later, Reid dropped a would-be interception and Floyd bobbled and caught the scoring pass for a 14-0 Notre Dame lead.
Making matters worse for the 'Noles, Reid landed awkwardly on his neck on the play and didn't return with concussion-like symptoms.
FSU may have quickly been down two defensive backs but Joyner just as speedily gave FSU a scoring chance. His 77-yard kick return on the ensuing kickoff set up a 42-yard field goal by Hopkins to trim the deficit to 14-3 with 9:03 left in the third quarter.
The 'Noles bent but didn't break on Notre Dame's next possession as Brandon Jenkins' sack ended a promising Fighting Irish drive. FSU got the ball back and Greene's diving catch gave the Seminoles' their first third-down conversion of not just the night but the first in 18 attempts dating back to the win over Florida.
Avoiding fourth downs is conducive to positive offense and the Seminoles followed that logic on the drive. Reed capped off FSU's 84-yard march down the field with his 18-yard touchdown reception before the Seminoles failed to convert a two-point conversion.
Down 14-9 with 14:54 left in the game, FSU needed a turnover and a senior answered the bell.
Bradham's interception and return set the Seminoles up on Notre Dame's 18-yard-line and two plays later Greene's twisting touchdown grab gave FSU its first lead of the game -- 15-14 -- before another failed two-point conversion attempt.
"It was all trying to make plays for my team," Greene said. "Just doing it for my team. Just like Coach Fisher said, when the line got settled down and realized it could play there was a lot more that we could do. EJ gave me a chance and I made for the team. That's what this has been about; family and team."
After not scoring an offensive touchdown since the second quarter of the Florida game, the 'Noles got two in just 1:36 Thursday night. They then added three more points with 8:05 remaining on a 29-yard Hopkins field goal that was set up by Greene's 42-yard catch on third down.
With 2:48 and Notre Dame threatening to re-gain the lead in the redzone, Brooks' interception all but sealed the victory and the Seminoles' defense didn't allow a Hail Mary play with 13 seconds to play to preserve the win.