by John Vannie
Notre Dame continued its all too familiar pattern of finding a way to lose a game it seemingly had under control, dropping an 18-14 decision to the Florida State Seminoles in the Champs Sports Bowl. The Irish led 14-0 early in the third period, but could not sustain a fine defensive effort and squandered several scoring chances when it mattered most. Turnovers once again spelled doom for Notre Dame, and both Tommy Rees and Andrew Hendrix threw costly fourth quarter interceptions.
The Irish sent their fans on a roller coaster ride at the outset before the game settled into a defensive battle. A 41-yard punt return (yes, it’s permissable to return a punt in college football) by Michael Floyd set up an opening drive that reached the FSU four yard line before Rees threw an interception in the end zone. The Seminoles took over and immediately coughed up the football as Manti Te’o forced a fumble that safety Zeke Motta scooped up and returned for a 29-yard touchdown.
These seven points turned out to be the only scoring in the first half. The Notre Dame defense repeatedly blitzed FSU quarterback E. J. Manuel and held the Noles to 18 yards of total offense before intermission. Menawhile, neither Rees nor Hendrix had much success against the Florida State defense. A missed field goal by David Ruffer and a certain touchdown pass that was dropped by Floyd prevented the Irish from building a safe lead.
George Atkinson opened the third quarter for Notre Dame with a long kickoff return, and a personal foul on the Noles helped the Irish get into the red zone. Hendrix rushed three times to get inside the five, and Rees came on to throw a fade to Floyd for a score. The ball probably should have been intercepted, but Floyd took it away from the defensive back and was able to secure it after a brief juggling act.
Lamarcus Joyner retaliated with a 77-yard kickoff return for Florida State for its best field position of the night. The Noles could not manage a first down, but Dustin Hopkins kicked a 42 yard field goal to make it a 14-3 ballgame at the nine minute mark of the period. Notre Dame appeared to be in good shape at this point, as the defense was still playing well and the Seminoles had lost their two starting cornerbacks to injury. Unfortunately for the Irish, Floyd went out of the game shortly thereafter with an undisclosed injury and did not return.
After pinning Florida State deep in its own territory with time running short in the third quarter, Notre Dame’s defense suddenly became conservative. The Noles were starting four freshman on the offensive line and could not handle the Irish pressure, but coaches Brian Kelly and Bob Diaco opted for a three man rush and soft zone coverage. The strategy backfired as FSU’s speedy receivers found open spaces and Manuel suddenly had time to get them the ball. The Noles scored their first touchdown on the opening play of the fourth quarter to make it 14-9 when Manuel hit Bert Reed from 18 yards out.
A failed two point conversion kept Notre Dame in control, but the Irish relinquished the advantage on the next series when Hendrix forced a pass right into the hands of Seminole linebacker Nigel Bradham. Starting at the Irish 18, it took Manuel only two plays to fire the go-ahead scoring pass to Rashad Greene. In a mere two minutes, Notre Dame lost control of a game it had in hand for three quarters. There was time to make amends, however, as the FSU lead was just a single point after another failed two point conversion attempt.
Rees hit Tyler Eifert near midfield on the ensuing drive, but the Seminoles sacked him on the next series to end the threat. Manuel was again able to stand tall in the pocket, and he used the time to launch a 42-yard bomb to Greene. This set up a short field goal by Hopkins to stretch FSU’s advantage to 18-14 with 8:05 remaining.
Notre Dame reached midfield again before stalling. This time, Ben Turk punted the ball to the Seminole one yard line and Irish fans prayed for a defensive stop. Manuel misfired on third down and punter Shawn Powell got off a poor boot that rolled dead on his own 43 yard line. A facemask penalty during the punt gave Notre Dame another 15 yards, so the Irish took over at the Seminole 28 with four minutes remaining.
After earning a first down at the FSU 18, Notre Dame was penalized for holding. Rees went for broke on the next play and his heave into double coverage was picked off in the end zone by Terrance Brooks. The Noles effectively ran out all but 13 seconds of the clock on the next series, and the Irish could manage only a few Hail Marys that went unanswered.
The loss dropped Notre Dame to 8-5, which is the same result that Kelly delivered in his first season. Two season-ending losses and numerous unforced errors leave a much more sour taste in 2011 though, and the lack of a reliable quarterback is the most urgent problem facing the coaching staff this offseason. Replacing Floyd and possibly Eifert will also be difficult given the lack of playmakers on the current roster.
Let’s review the answers to our pregame questions:
Which offensive line will best be able to protect the passer? The Irish protected well except when Rees held the ball too long, and the defense made life miserable for Manuel until they inexplicably backed off.
Can either team generate over 100 yards in the running game? Notre Dame gained 122 yards but netted out at 95 when sack yardage was subtracted. The Noles finished with a net of only 42 yards.
Which team will overcome the effects of the long layoff and avoid costly mistakes? The Noles handed seven points to Notre Dame in the early going, but it was the Irish who made all the errors from that point forward.
Can either Irish quarterback have success against the formidable FSU defense? Not really. A few good throws did not translate into sustained drives, and the best pass of the night was dropped by Floyd.
Which special teams will have the most influence on the outcome? The Irish were better in the punting game and FSU had a slight edge on kickoffs. The edge to the Noles is based on Hopkins’ two field goals and Ruffer’s miss.
Will Michael Floyd be able to get open against the Seminole secondary? Xavier Rhodes did a good job on Floyd before suffering a sprained knee in the third quarter. Floyd did bail out Rees for Notre Dame’s only offensive touchdown, but was not on the field later when the Irish tried to come from behind.
Are the Seminole War Chant and Tomahawk Chop more obnoxious than USC’s “Conquest”? The Noles were pretty quiet for the first 45 minutes, but they made up for it with incessant chants once their team woke up.
In the final analysis, the season ended as it started. Turnovers, ineffective offensive and defensive strategies, seemingly random substitutions and shuffling at quarterback, uneven special teams play and late defensive collapes. The pattern has become so familiar that Irish fans had just better get used to it.