December 28, 2011 - by
Game Preview: FSU vs. ND

Dec. 28, 2011

ORLANDO, Fla. — It may not be the “Game of the Century” like it was when the two programs met in 1993 but the renewal of the Florida State-Notre Dame rivalry seems like it has taken 100 years to officially arrive.

But it’s time. Finally.

FSU returns to action Thursday night when it faces Notre Dame in the Champs Sports Bowl in Orlando, Fla. Neither team has played a game in over a month and the build-up for one of the most anticipated non-BCS games of the bowl season kicks off at 5:30 p.m. live on ESPN.

Brandon Mellor
Brandon Mellor Senior Writer
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After a break for final exams, countless hours of pre-bowl activities and practices, a Best Buy shopping spree and some well-spent time at the Give Kids The World Village, the Seminoles and Fighting Irish get to spend 60 minutes battling each other for a ninth win in 2011.

At 8-4 on the season, both teams not only have an identical record but the two storied programs share the same desire to put an exclamation point on the second seasons for the two head coaches, FSU’s Jimbo Fisher and Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly.

“You want to close out the year strong and get people talking and a win over a big-name opponent like Notre Dame would do that,” FSU’s consensus All-American punter, Shawn Powell, said.

The similarities between the ‘Noles and Fighting Irish are clear but one thing that will look a little different Thursday night is Florida State’s offensive line.

Seminoles fans are likely to get a good look at the future of the program inside the Citrus Bowl as there’s a strong chance that four true freshmen will start on the offensive line against the Fighting Irish.

Senior Zebrie Sanders will start one last time at left tackle for the ‘Noles and 17-year-old rookie Bobby Hart will continue to man the right tackle spot. While Hart has been a starter for eight games this season, the biggest changes are along the interior of the offensive line.

Josue Matias and Tre Jackson are likely to get the first starts of their careers at left guard and right guard, respectively, and Austin Barron may get the third start of his career at center.

Despite the youth and inexperience on the inside, Fisher said he’s been pleased with what he’s seen from the first-year linemen.

“They young guys have done very well; they’re going to be great players,” Fisher said. “We are very excited.”

While Notre Dame’s defenders will make exploiting FSU’s youth up front a priority, EJ Manuel and the ‘Noles’ offense will be focused on bouncing back after a disappointing conclusion to the regular season.

After a 95-yard offensive output in the state-championship-clinching victory over rival Florida last month, Manuel said this week that he and his teammates are anxious to show signs of improvement in the season finale.

“We are looking forward to the challenge and changing a lot of people’s perspectives about us,” said Manuel, who also noted that Notre Dame’s defense is “big” and can “really fly to the ball.”

As for FSU’s defense, the Seminoles have been preparing for Thursday’s showdown by game-planning for a pair of quarterbacks and a pair of stars. 

Under center, Tommy Rees is Notre Dame’s starter at quarterback but the more mobile Andrew Hendricks will see some extended playing time against the Seminoles, according to Kelly.

Greg Reid and the FSU defense has the task of slowing down Notre Dame’s Michael Floyd Thursday night.

Either one of those quarterbacks has the advantage of throwing to Michael Floyd, who leads Notre Dame with a staggering 95 receptions this season for 1,106 yards and eight touchdowns. Floyd excels on the outside and tight end Tyler Eifert does his damage on the inside and over the middle where he has hauled in 57 catches for 713 yards and five touchdowns from his tight end position.

“Our front seven has got to be really strong against their spread,” FSU middle linebacker Vince Williams said. “We’ll have to let our linebackers and our defensive-line do the work.”

No matter how the youngsters play up front or how well the defense performs against Notre Dame’s offensive weapons, if FSU wants to be the victor of the Champs Sports Bowl it will have to protect the football.

“It’s always turnovers,” Fisher said. “Turnovers affect the games more than anything and I think that’s one thing on offense we have done very well this year. We had two games in which we had multiple turnovers on offense and that was Wake [Forest] and Oklahoma. Other than that, we’ve had one or less turnover on offense every game. 

“So taking care of the ball is very crucial.”

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