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Miscues cost Irish in bowl loss

Chris Masoud | Tuesday, January 17, 2012

ORLANDO, Fla. — It started against South Florida, it reared its ugly head against USC and, finally, it prevented Notre Dame from picking up a season-ending bowl win. Turnovers once again led to Notre Dame’s demise, as Florida State took full advantage of three takeaways en route to its 18-14 victory in the Champs Sports Bowl.

“The turnovers were, again, the large reason for us not being able to win this football game, and it’s been the case all year,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “We know what we need to do. We’ve already talked about it, and players that are going to be back for the 2012 football season will be committed to getting that end done.”

The Irish finished the season with 29 committed turnovers and 14 takeaways, good enough for a minus-15 takeover differential. Against the Seminoles, Notre Dame forced just one turnover while committing three, losing the turnover battle for the 10th time this season.

“We made turnovers — that’s the biggest stat of the game. That’s where you start,” junior tight end Tyler Eifert said.

The Irish wasted little time turning the ball over.

After forcing Florida State into a three-and-out in the first possession of the game, senior receiver Michael Floyd gave the offense excellent field position with a 41-yard punt return, the team’s longest of the season.

Starting deep in Seminole territory, sophomore quarterback Tommy Rees marched the Irish down to the 4-yard line before throwing an interception to Lamarcus Joyner in the end zone, capping a nine-play drive and denying Notre Dame the first score of the game.

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

Heading into the fourth quarter, the Irish clung to a precarious 14-9 lead before two more turnovers upended Notre Dame. Trading snaps with Rees, sophomore quarterback Andrew Hendrix threw the second interception of the game, a short pass that was picked off by Nigel Bradham. Two plays later, Florida State took its first lead of the game.

“Their defense made plays with turnovers close to their goal line. On defense, we always harp on making stops, no matter what,” senior safety Jamoris Slaughter said. “As a defense, we feel like we could have made more stops when they got turnovers.”

Slaughter, who finished with a game-high two sacks, and the Irish defense came up with a key stop late in the quarter, forcing a Seminole punt with 3:56 remaining and the score 18-14 in Florida State’s favor.

But Notre Dame’s third and final interception proved to be the nail in the coffin. On first down, Rees heaved a deep pass to senior receiver John Goodman and it was picked off in the end zone. Minutes later, Notre Dame’s season ended in a loss.

“There’s definitely some high points, and every season has its ups and downs,” Rees said. “There were games where our offense was firing, and I think we developed some guys that really stepped up this year. There’s always things to take away, but to focus on the negatives — that’s really where you get better.”

In Notre Dame’s case, eliminating just one negative — turnovers — may be enough to help Kelly and the Irish avoid a third consecutive five-loss season in 2012.