For Notre Dame, game lost but respect gained

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — One play. A multi-million dollar play.

One penalty. Huge. A season-changer.

Notre Dame left town with a lot of respect around college football.

What the Irish left behind was a victory.

An offensive pass interference penalty in the final seconds late Saturday negated what would have been an Irish game-winning touchdown and changed the trajectory of the Notre Dame season.

Florida State escaped from its own crib with a 31-27 victory.

The Irish left with the feeling that they belong.

This was supposed to be Notre Dame’s opportunity to finally prove that it belonged among the country’s elite. This was a chance for the Irish to finally figure out something they struggled with for what seems to be forever.

Well, at least 1999 – 1-17 vs. Top 5 teams.

This was their chance to finally have the word “playoff” in the same sentence with “Notre Dame,” without a snicker or a caveat to follow.

Oh well.

Judging by their effort Saturday night, the Irish aren’t there yet.

But, they aren’t that far away, either.

It came down to one last series that reached the Florida State 2 before the yellow flag ruined the storybook end.

Can that be called a “signature” moment for Jameis Winston?

Probably. In more ways than one.

The Florida State quarterback’s running game had abandoned him. Controversy swirling around him all week was hardly an afterthought.

All that mattered was that the chips were down and the bright lights were on.

What he did Saturday night in the second-half of Florida State’s come-from-obscurity victory is why he’s college football’s reigning Heisman Trophy winner.

Trailing 17-10 at halftime, Winston hit 15 of his first 16 second-half passes and put Florida State up 31-27.

Look at the bright side, though, Irish fans. Knee deep in autograph issues, there’s probably better than a 50-50 chance that sometime down the road – probably not in time for it to matter this season – the NCAA could possibly find Winston ineligible. A paper trail would be the impetus for a forfeit.

But again, that’s hypothetical – but not completely improbable.

What’s tangible is that Notre Dame had its opportunity to finally shed its “can’t win the big one” tag that has been a dark cloud over this program since 1999. The Irish are 1-17 against Top 5 teams.

This was another big fish the Irish let off the hook. Notre Dame’s offense was effective, especially in the first half. The defense did what has done – in every game but North Carolina.

No back-down in them Irish.

The Irish controlled the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. They were daring when they had to be, and determined the rest of the time.

Notre Dame’s defense forced Florida State into a one-dimensional approach to offense.

With a running game that couldn’t get much traction, the Seminoles were forced to turn to Winston to direct a quick passing game with a short drop to neutralize the effectiveness of the Irish rush.

Even a one-dimensional Winston is pretty good.

An offensive line that struggled to the point of needing a mid-season re-tool job, finally meshed. Running back Tarean Folston was effective, especially in the first half (78 yards on 14 carries). Golson was sacked just once in the first half. While generating a 355-253 edge in total offense after three quarters, the Notre Dame offensive line was confident and consistent.

One sure way to short circuit that dreadfully annoying “War Chant” was to shut down anything the Seminoles were trying.

As Notre Dame had continued success, and the 82,000-plus chanters found a level of frustration they hadn’t felt for a couple years, the “S” in Doak S. Campbell Stadium stood for “Shhhhhh.”

Florida State managed just 19 net rushing yards in the first half, and 111 total, as Notre Dame jumped out to a 17-10 lead.

Play-calling – offensively and defensively – was aggressive.

Three times the Irish tried to convert on fourth down. It worked just once.

While the defense was dominant up front for the most part, it allowed defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder to bring pressure from different directions.

It got loud again late.

That yellow flag was deafening.

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Notre Dame's Corey Robinson caught two touchdown passes in the loss to Florida State, but a third in the final minute was negated because of a penalty. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)