Andy Staples: 'Noles look toward 2012 after sneaking past Fighting Irish - Sports Illustrated

Florida State looks to 2012 after sneaking past Notre Dame

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ORLANDO, Fla. -- Sometimes, if you press your ear to the press box window, you can almost hear thousands of fans across the country scream "Noooooooooooooooo!" as a ball flies through the air. One of those moments took place Thursday evening.

As the ball chucked by Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees buried itself in the hands of Florida State safety Terrence Brooks with 2:48 remaining, those same thousands -- undoubtedly inspired by the A Christmas Story marathon this past weekend -- probably screamed "Fuuuuuuuuuuudddddggggge!"

Only they didn't say "fudge."

Because, with apologies to Ralphie, this was THE interception. The big one. The queen-mother of all interceptions. Coach Brian Kelly wanted Rees to hit the receiver running dig route if the safety doubled the receiver running the post route. Brooks doubled the post. Rees threw to the post. In the process, he encapsulated a season of missed opportunities for the Fighting Irish and helped seal an 18-14 Florida State win that should give the Seminoles -- who started four true freshmen on the offensive line Thursday -- renewed confidence heading into the offseason.

FSU and Notre Dame are about as far apart as a one-possession game would suggest. But bowl games are funny like that. For the Irish, this loss will be the albatross that can't be shed until September. For the Seminoles, this win will serve as the proof that 2012 -- even though we say it every year -- is the year FSU finally re-establishes itself among the nation's elite.

What should stick in the craw of the Irish is the realization that this could have been a much bigger year. The 2011 season effectively ended with a crippling interception in the end zone, and that perfectly bookended the crippling red-zone fumble returned for a touchdown that helped cost Notre Dame its season opener against South Florida. Then came the fourth-quarter collapse against Sugar Bowl-bound Michigan. Then came this calamity, for which there are no appropriate words, against USC. But for a few plays, the Irish could have entered their bowl game at 11-1 or 10-2.

"The turnovers were, again, the large reason for us not being able to win this football game," Kelly said. "It's been the case all year. It started against South Florida, and it continued to show itself throughout the entire year."

Changing quarterbacks didn't fix the problem. Dayne Crist, who has already decided to transfer to Kansas, gave way to Rees. Rees then occasionally gave way to Andrew Hendrix down the stretch. Thursday, Rees and the more mobile Hendrix split time. Rees threw an interception to Lamarcus Joyner in the end zone in the first quarter and threw directly to Brooks in the fourth with the Irish facing first-and-20 from the FSU 28. Hendrix, meanwhile, threw the fourth-quarter interception to Nigel Bradham that set up the E.J. Manuel-to-Rashad Greene laser beam that gave FSU its first lead at 15-14.

"We cannot win football games at the highest level if we continue to turn the ball over," Kelly said. "So the coaches have to get better. The players have to get better. We have to solve this issue if we're going to be an elite football team."

Indeed, but that solution won't come without more hand-wringing over the identity of the quarterback. In the spring, Rees and Hendrix will compete with freshman Everett Golson, who sat out this season. If one of those players can grab the job and hold on tight, the Irish may know their offensive identity going into the season. That is the dream scenario, but it's equally as likely that the competition could drag into August or September. Still, the Irish bring back linebacker Manti Te'o and a host of promising young defenders such as nose guard Louis Nix and defensive end Aaron Lynch, who FSU quarterback Manuel said will be "all-world." It may seem dark now, but a one-possession loss -- as crushing as it was -- shouldn't ruin an entire offseason.

The mood will be much brighter in Tallahassee, though the Seminoles have their own issues to resolve. In 2011, FSU had plenty of excuses for its failure to live up to preseason expectations. Manuel missed games and played hurt. Leading receiver Greene missed four games due to injury. (The fact that Greene still led the team in receiving yards in spite of that absence suggests he and Manuel need some serious help from FSU's other pass-catchers.) Five offensive linemen were lost for the season to injury, forcing senior left tackle Zebrie Sanders to preside over a Romper Room line Thursday that included 17-year-old right tackle Bobby Hart.

In the first half, FSU's young linemen played like overwhelmed freshmen. The Irish sacked Manuel four times, and it seemed the junior wouldn't survive the game intact, much less lead the Seminoles to a win. Someone asked FSU coach Jimbo Fisher if he contemplated making changes on the line at halftime. Fisher smiled and conceded that there were no changes he could make. Besides, he said, most of the busted plays usually involved only one missed assignment. If the Seminoles could only string together a few plays in which all five completed their assignments, FSU had a chance. Manuel tried to stay positive even as he dodged Irish defenders play after play. "The biggest thing was giving them confidence," Manuel said.

In the third quarter, something miraculous happened. The sieve didn't exactly turn into a wall, but it did give Manuel a few more fractions of a second to throw. "The guys up front," Fisher said, "finally realized they could play."

The quarter began with a Notre Dame drive that appeared to portend a blowout. FSU cornerback Xavier Rhodes went out with a knee injury, and the Irish attacked FSU's other defensive backs. The drive ended with a pass that would have been intercepted by Seminole Greg Reid had it not been thrown to 6-foot-3, 224-pound future millionaire Michael Floyd. Floyd jumped and snatched the ball away from Reid for a touchdown that put Notre Dame up 14-0. The play would cost both teams. Floyd suffered what Kelly called "an upper-body injury," while Reid landed on his head and missed the rest of the game because of concussion-like symptoms.

Down 14-3 late in the third, FSU faced third-and-five from its own 21. The Seminoles had yet to convert a third down. Hope for a comeback remained minimal. Manuel lofted a pass down the left sideline. Greene seemed to have no chance to reach the ball, but he dove and wound up cradling the ball at the Notre Dame 46. This didn't surprise anyone on the Florida State sideline. The Seminoles have seen Greene perform such feats all season in practice. Greene's former teammates at Fort Lauderdale's St. Thomas Aquinas High probably weren't surprised, either. After all, they saw him do this. Greene would make another circus catch along the right sideline in the fourth quarter -- which may or may not have been a catch; the replay official said it was -- to help set up the field goal that forced Notre Dame to play for a touchdown.

Greene is one of a number of freshmen and sophomores on the FSU depth chart that should have everyone in garnet and gold counting the days until September. All those offensive linemen will be back, along with several of the starters lost to injury this season. Defensive end Bjoern Werner and linebackers Christian Jones and Telvin Smith are only sophomores. Ditto for Joyner and Rhodes. The future seems bright after FSU stole a win Thursday, but Fisher knows the emotional bump from the victory can only take the Seminoles so far.

"Just because you win this game, does it give you momentum? Yes, it does. But it doesn't mean you're going to win next year," Fisher said. "We have to put in the work now. This team's new life just now starts. A team has a life expectancy of one year. We've got a new team now."

Those who dwell in South Bend, despite how awful they feel now, would be wise to remember that.