ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — In Notre Dame’s three early season losses turnovers, poor second-half performances and an inability to score in red zone were costly.
The Irish thought they’d put those problems behind them after winning five of their final six games of the regular season.
Those issues came back Thursday night and it proved too much for them in an 18-14 loss to Florida State in the Champs Sports Bowl.
Florida State rallied from a 14-point second-half deficit and used a pair of touchdown passes by E.J. Manuel and two field goals from Dustin Hopkins to secure the win.
The victory was FSU’s fourth straight bowl win. The loss snapped a streak of two straight bowl wins for the Irish and drops their overall bowl record to 15-16.
FSU receiver Rashad Greene, who caught one of Manuel’s touchdown passes, was the game’s MVP.
“It started in South Florida,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly of the Irish’s issues of turnovers and missed opportunities.
“And it continued to shoot itself throughout the entire year. We know what we need to do. We’ve already talked about it, and the players that are going to be back for the 2012 football season will be committed to getting that end done.”
The No. 25 Seminoles (9-4) started four freshmen on their offensive line and gave up five sacks, but FSU’s defense picked off Notre Dame quarterbacks Tommy Rees and Andrew Hendrix three times and had four sacks.
Junior linebacker Manti Te’o, who led Notre Dame with 13 tackles and got in on a sack Thursday, said fatigue was not a factor in the Irish not being able to maintain pressure on Manuel in the fourth quarter.
“They made their corrections and we just, as a defense, we just needed to get to the quarterback and we knew what E.J. could do back there when he had time,” he said. “So that is something that we have to look at.
“We have a long time to prepare for next year, and when that time comes, that doesn’t happen again.”
Notre Dame shuffled between Rees and Hendrix throughout the game, but both struggled to get the Irish points inside the red zone, converting on 1 of 3 for the game. They also a combined 19 for 35 and just 187 yards passing.
FSU scored on all four of its red zone chances.
The Irish also were without their biggest offensive weapon late, with receiver Michael Floyd being forced to the sideline following a third-quarter touchdown catch with what coach Brian Kelly described afterward was an “upper-body injury.”
He returned to the game, but was a non-factor.
After some stagnant offense on both sides in the first half, FSU trailed 14-0 early in the third quarter before finding momentum through the air.
The Seminoles closed the gap to 14-9 with an 18-yard touchdown pass from Manuel to Bert Reed to open the fourth quarter, but failed on their 2-point conversion attempt.
They took the lead just 1:32 later after Nigel Bradham intercepted a Hendrix pass inside the Notre Dame 20 to set up an 18-yard touchdown catch by Greene to make it 15-14 with just over 13 minutes to play following another failed 2-point try.
The Seminoles added their second field goal of the game a series later.
Notre Dame punted on its next possession, but pinned FSU inside its own 5 and forced a quick three-and-out.
A poor punt by the Seminoles and a facemask penalty on the return gave the Irish the ball on the FSU 28 with 3:56 to play, but Rees was picked off in the end zone with 2:48 left and FSU was able run out most of the remaining time.
Notre Dame took a 14-0 lead on its opening drive of the second half by capping a nine-play, 62-yard drive with a 5-yard touchdown pass from Rees to Floyd. Floyd fought Seminoles cornerback Greg Reid for the ball on to play, juggling it multiple times before finally getting his hands around it.
Reid stayed down on the turf after the play and left the game with concussion symptoms.
FSU bounced right back with a 77-yard kickoff return by Lamarcus Joyner, but Notre Dame’s fifth sack of the night on Manuel helped force the Seminoles to settle for a 42-yard field goal by Hopkins.
Notre Dame’s defense was responsible for the lone score of the first half.
The Irish forced a quick punt on FSU’s opening possession of the game, and used a 41-yard return by Floyd and a series of runs by Cierre Wood to set up a first-and-goal inside the 5-yard line.
But the threat ended just a play later when Rees was picked off by Joyner in the end zone.
The Seminoles’ ensuing drive lasted only one play, with Devonta Freeman fumbling a pass from Manuel into the hands of Notre Dame safety Zeke Motta, who then returned it 29 yards for the touchdown.
Both offenses struggled to find any traction in the opening 30 minutes.
Along with each team’s turnovers, Florida State’s offense gained only 104 total yards to Notre Dame’s 91.