For the second year in a row, Notre Dame heads South to play in a bowl game against an ACC opponent. Last year, the Irish ripped Miami in the Sun Bowl. This year, it’s Florida State in the Champs Sports Bowl. Nationally, this is one of the more intriguing bowl games outside of the BCS. For Notre Dame, this is a chance to beat a good football team, end their season on a high note, and spark a fire heading toward what should be a highly anticipated 2012 season.
NOTRE DAME PREVIEW
The obvious big question coming into the contest is at quarterback. Tommy Rees will start the bowl game as he has stared every game but the season opener. But when and how much Andrew Hendrix sees the field is what everyone is waiting to find out. Hendrix has played well in his limited experience this year, while Rees has struggled at times while still winning eight games in 11 starts. Hendrix really turned up the heat on Rees in the season finale at Stanford when he played for over a half and led the Irish on their two touchdown drives while Rees played poorly. Many have called for Hendrix to take over as the starter, but Rees gets the nod for now although both will play.
The other biggest news on offense is the move of Theo Riddick back to running back and Robby Toma taking over at slot receiver. The move seems natural as Riddick came to Notre Dame as a running back before moving to receiver before last season. He’s never really taken to the move, however, and feels much more comfortable in the backfield. With Toma proving he can contribute, Riddick may make the move permanent. This, of course, happened because of the knee injury to Jonas Gray who had become the featured back before tearing his ACL. Cierre Wood has had a terrific season, but having a tag team partner back there will definitely help him out.
On defense, the Irish have played well this season. Well enough to win nearly every game. With this game being the final chance for Ethan Johnson, Darius Fleming, Gary Gray, Robert Blanton, and Harrison Smith, I expect them to play well again against a good Seminole offense.
FLORIDA STATE PREVIEW
The Seminoles enter the bowl game 9-4 overall, finishing 5-3 in the ACC. It was a season that started with the apparent chance for a national championship, but that quickly slipped away with a three game losing streak early in the season. Looking at their schedule, they didn’t beat anyone they shouldn’t have beaten. Their ACC wins came against also rans like Duke, Maryland, Boston College and Miami (FL). Their best win came against arch-rival Florida, who like the Seminoles, didn’t live up to expectations.
Their biggest weapon is quarterback EJ Manuel who can both run and pass. This season, he’s completed 65.4% of his passes for 2,417 yards with 16 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He’s also rushed for 171 yards and four scores.
FSU has had a hard time rushing the ball this year. Leading rusher Devonta Freeman has only run for 531 yards with eight touchdowns while second leading rusher Jermaine Thomas had picked up just 279 yards and a touchdown. For Florida State to win, they must pass the ball effectively.
They do have a wealth of receivers to throw to. 10 different players have caught double-digit passes and five have caught at least two touchdowns. Guys to watch for will be leading receiver Rodney Smith (32 rec., 527 yds, 4 TDs), Rashad Greene (33 rec., 497 yds, 6 TDs), and Christian Green (25 rec., 447 yds).
Defensively, FSU has been really good ranking fourth in the nation in only giving up 15.2 points a game. They haven’t given up more than 19 points since October 8th. Leading the charge is Nigel Bradham who has totalled 77 tackles, two sacks, and an interception. Christian Jones is right behind with 55 tackles and three sacks. Safety LaMarcus Joyner leads the team with seven interceptions and Brandon Jenkins has collected 11 tackles for loss and seven sacks. It’s going to be a challenge for whoever plays quarterback for Notre Dame.
On paper this game is going to come down to Notre Dame’s defense against FSU offense. Can the Irish D slow down Florida State? If they can, will the Irish offense score enough points against the Seminole defense? I think this is going to be a close game, and while Florida State is very good, I see Notre Dame ready to go and squeaking out the win.
FINAL SCORE: Notre Dame – 27, Florida State – 24