Bowl Blitz: Champs Sports Bowl A Crossroads for Notre Dame, Florida State


Bobby Bowden and Lou Holtz. Crisp Indiana air and warm Sunshine State rays. Rudy and Burt Reynolds. Touchdown Jesus and Jenn Sterger.

Notre Dame and Florida State could not be much more different, which is why when each was at college football’s pinnacle in the early 1990s, their burgeoning rivalry was so heated.

Each program has gone through its struggles in recent years, declining from the heights each once occupied. The 2011 season was to be a revival of their past glory; both were pre-season favorites in numerous circles to contend for the Bowl Championship Series title or a BCS game appearance.

Such notions were quickly dispelled, as the Seminoles and Irish each suffered skids in the season’s first half. The frustration the two fan bases have built have to have been compounded with the confounding nature of some of their losses.

UND’s season opening defeat to a USF team that would finish 5-7 featured numerous perplexing miscues and turnovers. The Irish would follow that up with a blown double-digit lead under the newly installed lights of Michigan’s Big House.

FSU suffered a somewhat predictable setback against Oklahoma early in the season, but that began a three-game slide including a shocking loss at Wake Forest. The Seminole defense that was a veritable wall most of the season became a civ against Tanner Price and the Demon Deacon passing attack.

Recapping past folly is necessary for previewing this bowl game, because the Champs Sports Bowl could be considered a disappointment given the teams’ summer expectations. Yet, their paths intersect at what could be a crossroads for each program.

The pieces of championship caliber football programs are evident in both the Fighting Irish and Seminoles. Learning from those mistakes is going to determine whether these teams reclaim their glory, or continue to disappoint. That starts with the Champs Sports Bowl, and treating it as a launching pad for grander things down the road as opposed to the end of a lackluster campaign.

FSU head coach Jimbo Fisher has proven his recruiting chops in a short time at the helm. He signed a top three class in 2011, and the 2012 haul appears just as deep.

The cache of talent in the Seminole defense rivals any in the nation. FSU held opponents, on average, to just 15.2 points per game. Two of the only three teams better are playing for the BCS Championship.

Nigel Bradham is an anchor of the FSU defense, a hard-hitting, ball-hawking linebacker with a future of playing football on Sundays. If he isn’t in the NFL, Vince McMahon should ready a Brinks truck to back up to Bradham’s house, because he lays out defenders in much the same fashion Goldberg laid to waste competition in the wrestling ring.

Bradham is as savvy as he is physical, a particularly dangerous combination for opposing running back. That means Cierre Wood on Thursday. Wood is the Irish’s leading rusher at 1042 yards, and an emerging star in a revamped Notre Dame offense.

Wood’s time in the spotlight is coming perhaps sooner than Brian Kelly would have liked though. Wood originally shared ball carrying duties with Jonas Gray, but Gray suffered a knee injury last month that has sidelined him for the bowl game. The fewer the weapons in the offensive arsenal, the more effective FSU’s defense becomes.

Clemson was one of the few teams that found true offensive success against the ‘Noles, employing several different looks from Sammy Watkins, Tahj Boyd and Andre Ellington. Notre Dame needs a similarly multifaceted approach. The lack of Gray in the lineup is a certain detriment, as is the up-and-down play of Tommy Rees.

When Rees has been effective, he has spread the ball to four different targets for multiple touchdowns. He certainly has a deep group with which to work, too. Michael Floyd is a future pro, as is All-America tight end Tyler Eifert. T.J. Jones and Theo Riddick have both been reliable Nos. 3 and 4 targets.

Furthermore, Rees has ample time to work, playing behind an offensive line that has allowed just 13 sacks all season. Yet despite these factors, a bad Tommy Rees will peek out its head more often than Kelly may like. Rees has thrown 12 interceptions on the season, often the result of misreading coverage.

And that’s been without too heavy of a pressure from the defensive front. Should FSU break through with Brandon Jenkins and Bjoern Werner, it could be a long afternoon for Rees — and a productive one for Seminole defensive backs Greg Reid, Lamarcus Joyner and Xavier Rhodes.

On the flip side, in ND the Seminole defense is facing an offense that has scored 30.5 points per game. Notre Dame has shown the ability to be productive — explosive, even. Kelly is gradually shifting the mentality of his football program from the defeatist appearance it had in the latter years under Charlie Weis to something more akin what he had going at Cincinnati when the Bearcats won consecutive Big East titles.

The onus is on the Seminole defense to dictate game flow, as the FSU offense has struggled mightily when the focal point.

FSU’s issues can be traced back to the aforementioned Oklahoma game. Quarterback EJ Manuel has been dinged up all season since that affair, which has undoubtedly affected his productivity. Manuel rushed for four touchdowns, supplementing his 16 scores through the air. His touchdown-to-interception ratio was 2:1; not great, but certainly not bad.

He has yet to truly establish a rhythm though, partially the result of his nagging injuries and partially due to the ‘Noles’ lack of a running game. What appeared like it would be a strength coming into the season was anything but. FSU has just one ball carrier with more than 300 yards: Devonta Freeman at 531. Freeman has eight touchdowns, joining Manuel and Lonnie Pryor (2) as the only Seminole rushers with multiple scores via the rush.

Notre Dame’s defense could be licking its chops in preparation for the surprisingly anemic FSU running game. Manti Te’o can begin the buzz for his senior season with some big hits on the ‘Noles. The FSU offensive line must also deal with a defensive front that features the too-damn-big-to-be-a-true-frosh end Aaron Lynch. Add Darius Fleming and Robert Blanton to the equation, and the challenge before FSU’s front five becomes especially daunting.

The Seminoles surrendered 79 tackles for loss on the season, and one of the worst sack totals in the Bowl Subdivision at 36. The Irish can establish themselves the aggressor with a steady blitzing attack early. The more FSU plays behind the chains, the better chance Notre Dame stands of establishing some kind of rhythm against the Nole defense.

This match-up should prove to be a good one, and it could be the first installment in a long-overdue rekindling of a proud rivalry. The winner on Thursday gets a decided head start.