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Irish ready for Florida State after month off

Chris Masoud | Tuesday, December 27, 2011

When the Irish take the field Thursday at the Champs Sports Bowl, 31 days will have passed between Notre Dame’s loss to Stanford on Nov. 26 and its final contest of the season. Coupled with exceptional weather and numerous tourist attractions, an extended break from football activities can derail a team’s focus.

Despite the distractions, Irish coach Brian Kelly said the Irish remain selectively motivated on the task at hand: ending the season with a win.

“They all understand how important a ninth win is,” Kelly said once in Orlando. “I’m not as concerned about that as I am timing and tackling and all those things [after] a long layoff.

“I’m pleased with where we are. The extra day of work [Saturday] helped us get the jet lag out.”

Certainly Florida State presents a number of challenges to prepare for inside the lines. The Seminoles (8-4, 5-3 ACC) won six of their last seven contests, including a convincing 21-7 victory over Florida on the road to end the regular season.

The Seminoles feature the conference’s top-ranked defense, allowing only 15.2 points and 274.6 yards per game. Sophomore safety Lamarcus Joyner leads an athletic secondary with three interceptions.

“When you look at their secondary, you talk about tackling and playing the ball in the there,” Kelly said. “If you think about the two skills that you’re looking for relative to a corner, those are the two things, and [Joyner] does them very well. That’s the separator with him and the way he plays the game.”

Dual-threat quarterback EJ Manuel leads a Seminole offense that finished third in the conference, averaging 31.7 points per game. Manuel missed time this season due to a shoulder injury, but his return keyed Florida State’s strong finish.

While Manuel’s role as the starting quarterback for the Seminoles is a certainty, Kelly has been quiet in naming a starter for Notre Dame (8-4). However, he remained clear that both sophomores Tommy Rees and Andrew Hendrix will play.

“We’re going to play them both,” he said. “Getting them in the game — I don’t think we have to worry about, ‘We’ve got to be in this part of the field,’ and ‘The game has to be like this.’ We just play them. Both of them have the ability and are prepared to go in there and play. We’re just going to go in there and we’re committed to playing both quarterbacks.”

Rees took over the role as starting quarterback in the second half of Notre Dame’s opening loss to South Florida on Sept. 3. Hendrix replaced Rees in the first half of a 28-14 loss to Stanford, throwing uncertainty once more on the quarterback situation.

However, unlike the week leading up to the Stanford match, Hendrix has been taking snaps extensively with the first-team offense.

“He’s had an opportunity to work with the ones, and he didn’t do that when he was a situational player. He’s going to run our offense, not just run a package,” Kelly said. “They’ve both made progress since the regular season ended. We’re going up against a really good defense and they’re both going to play. Both our quarterbacks are prepared to play.”

While Irish fans may have experienced additional anxiety during the extended break, Kelly said he appreciated the extra time off to work with his quarterbacks.

“It’s nice for me for me to get my hands on them. It’s probably been the most enjoyable three weeks I’ve had in terms of being able to coach them and be in the staff room with them,” he said. “I’m excited about seeing them play. I think they’re both going to play really well.”

In the meantime, the Irish have enjoyed the hospitality of Orlando and the Champs Sports Bowl.

“I couldn’t be more pleased with the Champs Sports Bowl and the way they’ve treated our players,” Kelly said.

“Everyone has their eyes on being in a BCS game, but the way in which our players have been treated here has been outstanding.”

Notre Dame will face Florida State on Thursday at 5:30 p.m. and ESPN will carry the game nationally.