ORLANDO-- With a struggling offense staring at a 14-3 deficit entering the fourth quarter, Florida State rallied with 14 unanswered points to top Notre Dame 18-14 in the Champs Sports Bowl on Thursday night.
The Seminoles scored two touchdowns less than two minutes into the fourth on touchdown passes from quarterback EJ Manuel to take their first lead of the game and complete the comeback.
"(In the second half) we changed the momentum and played as a whole unit as well as we have during anytime of the year," FSU head coach Jimbo Fisher said.
The victory puts FSU's final record at 9-4 to complete Fisher's second season as head coach.
With a starting offensive line that consisted of four true freshmen, FSU couldn't get anything going in the first half offensively. ND took a 7-0 lead into the half after holding FSU to just 104 yards of total offense and sacking Manuel four times.
But in the second half the young offensive lineman adjusted to the bright lights and gave Manuel time to throw the ball downfield. Manuel, who was sacked just once in the second half, finished the game 20-of-31 for 249 yards and two touchdowns.
"Our offensive line they stepped up," Manuel said. "Those guys responded. I kind of got on them at half time and they responded. That's the biggest thing, those guys actually stood in there and started making their blocks."
Things really got going for the FSU offense at the end of the third quarter. Facing a third and 5 Manuel connected with Rashad Greene for a gain of 33 yards. It was the 'Noles first third down conversion of the game, they finished just 3 of 14, and set up an 18-yard touchdown pass to Bert Reed seven plays later.
"That was the start for our whole team," Manuel said. "Our defense was waiting for us to go out there and make plays, make plays and I always like to compliment those guys and do well for them. So when (Greene) made that catch it ignited the whole team."
On the ensuing possession ND quarterback Andrew Hendrix was intercepted by Nigel Bradham, who returned it to 17-yard line.
Just two plays later Manuel completed a 15-yard touchdown pass to Greene to give FSU its first lead of the game. Later in the fourth Greene came down with a tremendous 44-yard reception to set up a 29-yard field goal by Dustin Hopkins. The true freshman wideout finished the game with five catches for 99 yards and a touchdown as he was named the game's MVP.
Trailing 18-14 Notre Dame got the ball back at the FSU 28 with 3:56 left. But an interception thrown by Rees that cost the Irish a chance to win the game.
Notre Dame finished the game with 280 yards of total offense, 187 though the air, but was marred by two interceptions in the endzone.
"Turnovers were again the large reason for us not being able to win this game and it's been the case all year," ND head coach Brian Kelly said. "It started (against) South Florida (in the season opener) and continued to show itself throughout the entire year."
For FSU, the game was a microcosm of the entire season as it was forced to overcome adversity brought on by injures. Both starting cornerbacks Greg Reid and Xavier Rhodes were forced to leave the game in the second half.
Due to the injuries to Reid and Rhodes, safety Lamarcus Joyner (7 tackles and an interception) was forced to move to corner and Brooks came in the game at safety and it was Brooks who game up with the final interception to end the 2011 season with a win for Florida State.
"I've said this all year, this team has been through a lot of trials and tribulations with injuries, tightly played games," Fisher said. "A lot of people doubted it, but I said all along this team has a special character about it. It always does. It competes. It fights. It loves each other. It stays together no matter what people say, no matter what they do."