by John Vannie
Notre Dame and Florida State, college football heavyweights in search of a positive end to a somewhat disappointing season, will square off in the Champs Sports Bowl in Orlando Florida on December 29. Both teams harbored BCS dreams in September, but each suffered mind-numbing losses in winnable games due to sloppy play and finished the regular season at 8-4.
Head coaches Brian Kelly for the Irish and FSU’s Jimbo Fisher are in the second year of their respective efforts to restore these proud programs to elite status, and this matchup has resulted in a sellout for the first time in the game’s history. ESPN will provide national television coverage starting at 5:30 PM EST.
The play of the quarterbacks will hold the key to the outcome. The Seminoles are led by E.J. Manuel, a 6’5” junior whose injured shoulder was a critical factor in their three game losing streak earlier this year. Tommy Rees, who took over the reins during an 0-2 stumble out of the gate in September, will start for the Irish. Andrew Hendrix is also expected to play, but the exact timing and distribution of snaps is something Kelly is still pondering.
“We know he’s going to play,” Kelly said regarding Hendrix. “He’s prepared to play. I don’t know how it’s going to eventualize itself. I haven’t said in my own mind what it’s going to be, but I know he’s going to be in the game.”
The teams share three common opponents during the season. Notre Dame defeated Maryland, Boston College and Wake Forest while Florida State went 2-1 against that same trio. The Seminoles played Wake Forest during the period where Manuel was not 100% healthy, and they compounded the problem by committing five turnovers to none for the Deacons. Irish fans can certainly identify with that statistic to explain an upset loss.
Notre Dame remains without the services of a pair of key linemen in center Braxton Cave and defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore. Ethan Johnson and Manti Te’o should give the defense a boost since they have had time to heal from nagging leg injuries, but the offense will continue to miss Cave and running back Jonas Gray. Florida State has a few problems of its own on the offensive side. Wideout Bert Reed and guard Jacob Fahrenkrug are injured and unlikely to play, and backup tailback Jermaine Thomas has been declared academically ineligible.
NOTRE DAME’S OFFENSE vs. FLORIDA STATE’S DEFENSE
Notre Dame will face a very tough front seven that may be the best they have played this season. The Seminoles rank among the nation’s best in run defense and have yielded only 15 points per game. Their 4-3 alignment boasts a solid rotation of 300 pound tackles and physical pass-rushing ends. Fisher’s teams specialize in pressuring the passer, so Kelly may be forced to utilize Hendrix if the Irish line falters in protection and the less-mobile Rees cannot withstand the heat.
Florida State’s linebackers have above average size and speed. Nigel Bradham is the leading tackler for the Noles, and running mates Christian Jones and Vince Williams are right behind him in that category. It will be tough to run right at this defense, but they are fast enough to pursue to the sidelines as well. Rees will be called upon to throw quick, short passes with a high degree of accuracy, and Notre Dame must run the ball often enough to keep the sack-happy Noles from teeing off on the quarterback. Quick-hitting traps should be more effective than slow-developing stretch plays against FSU, and Cierre Wood will have to get to the hole fast and make decisive cuts.
The Irish will again rely on Michael Floyd to create opportunities in the passing game, which is not a surprise given his selection as the team’s most valuable player for the second consecutive year. Tight end Tyler Eifert must also be effective, and Notre Dame fans can only hope that this game won’t be his last as a Domer as is the case with Floyd. Theo Riddick’s return to the running back position does not remove him as a threat to catch the ball downfield, but the Irish will need him to share some of the workload with Wood now that Gray is unavailable.
The Florida State secondary has benefitted from the consistently strong pass rush, but there is considerable depth and some very talented players in the mix. Terrance Parks and Lamarcus Joyner start at safety, but Terrance Brooks is a playmaking backup who is also a demon on special teams. Fisher has three cornerbacks that he trusts in Xavier Rhodes, Mike Harris and the super quick Greg Reid. Rhodes, who is 6’2” and 215 pounds, would appear to be in line to match up with Floyd.
FLORIDA STATE’S OFFENSE vs. NOTRE DAME’S DEFENSE
The Seminoles average nearly 32 points per game and have a solid defense, so four losses seem excessive. Upon investigation, a few reasons for these failures begin to emerge. The offensive line appears to be the culprit, with 36 sacks allowed and an anemic running game. A rash of penalties has also hurt the Noles this season, while their turnover margin is slightly favorable.
Freshman Devonta Freeman took over the starting tailback job in October after seniors Ty Jones and Jermaine Thomas failed to distinguish themselves during the early going. Thomas is academically ineligible for this bowl game, so another freshman, James Wilder, Jr., will likely be the first man in to share the workload. The ground game is marginally better since Freeman took over, but many of the yards were piled up against the weaker ACC opponents. In games against Miami and Florida, the Noles had a combines 75 carries for only 93 rushing yards.
Injuries continue to plague Florida State on this side of the ball. The loss of Reed and Fahrenkrug remove a productive wide receiver and perhaps the team’s best offensive lineman from the equation. The line is already a patchwork group of young players as prior injuries have taken their toll, and another true freshman, either Tre’ Jackson or Josue Matias, could start in Fahrenkrug’s spot.
Manuel will spread the ball around in the passing game to a group of capable receivers, but there is no superstar among them. Freshman Rashad Green will replace Reed, joining 6’6” Rodney Smith and Kenny Shaw in the lineup. Christian Green is another young but talented receiver who will see action in this contest. Tight end Beau Reliford is a huge target, but the Seminoles use him almost exclusively as a blocker.
The key for Notre Dame is to stop the Florida State running game with its front seven and take away the deep pass. This will force Manuel into passing situations where his accuracy and patience will be tested. The Irish should be able to hold their own in the trenches, while the Noles will try to exploit their linebackers in pass coverage.
Florida State boasts a pair of outstanding specialists in punter Shawn Powell and kicker Dustin Hopkins. Each has been recognized on various All-American teams, with good reason. Powell averaged 47 yards per punt this season and very few were returned. Hopkins has tremendous range and is deadly accurate. The Noles have excellent coverage teams, and the stats of return men Reid and Joyner are well above average. Any of these weapons could be the deciding factor in a close ballgame.
Kicker David Ruffer will be playing his last game for Notre Dame. The former walk-on started slowly this season but has steadily returned to form in the field goal department. The depth of Kyle Brindza’s kickoffs diminished as the season progressed as various bumps and bruises took their toll, but he should be sufficiently healed by now and will be counted upon to get the ball past the goal line. Punter Ben Turk has improved his consistency, but occasionally gets off a short boot or one that can be returned for significant yardage.
Both defenses should have the upper hand in a low scoring game. The team that best protects the passer, establishes a respectable running game and avoids costly turnovers and penalties will emerge victorious. The Seminoles have an edge in special teams that could also tip the scales in their favor. The Irish in particular will need to start fast to avoid playing from behind, which means that Rees must be sharp if he indeed gets the starting nod. The first team that is forced to become one-dimensional will find itself in trouble.
Motivation is also a significant factor in bowl games. Notre Dame was the beneficiary last year when the Miami Hurricanes came to the Sun Bowl in disarray just after Coach Randy Shannon was fired, and the Canes appeared disinterested as the Irish put them away early. This season, both teams should have equal motivation, as the game carries significance to both programs despite the lack of impact on the national polls.
Here are a few questions that will have a bearing on the outcome:
Which offensive line will best be able to protect the passer?
Can either team generate over 100 yards in the running game?
Which team will overcome the effects of the long layoff and avoid costly mistakes?
Can either Irish quarterback have success against the formidable FSU defense?
Which special teams will have the most influence on the outcome?
Will Michael Floyd be able to get open against the Seminole secondary?
Are the Seminole War Chant and Tomahawk Chop more obnoxious than USC’s “Conquest”?
It’s almost certain that the outcome will be decided on a few critical plays – a turnover, an untimely penalty, a dropped pass or a missed block resulting in a sack could be enough to tip the scales. Field position will also play a role in that both defenses are not likely to yield long scoring marches. The Noles’ formidable defensive front seven, the absence of Irish center Braxton Cave, and Florida State’s special teams add up to a slight edge for Fisher’s squad.
FLORIDA STATE 23 NOTRE DAME 20