Florida State's defense kept Notre Dame from running away early Thursday night in the Champs Sports Bowl.
Quarterback EJ Manuel and an offensive line that struggled early but clicked late kept the Seminoles from leaving a soldout Florida Citrus Bowl with a loss.
The Seminoles allowed only one offensive touchdown and Manuel threw for two in a 96-second, fourth-quarter span to give them an 18-14 victory over the Fighting Irish.
"We know we've just got to keep our offense in it," FSU linebacker Nigel Bradham said.
The Seminoles (9-4) did that early. Bradham tipped a Tommy Rees pass on Notre Dame's first possession to safety Lamarcus Joyner, who secured one of FSU's two interceptions in the end zone.
Notre Dame (8-5) got the ball right back when safety Zeke Motta scooped up running back Devonta Freeman's fumble and returned it 29 yards for a touchdown.
The Irish defense hounded FSU, and its four freshman offensive linemen, the rest of the half. It sacked Manuel four times in the half, pressured him on four of his first seven dropbacks, and allowed only 9 rushing yards.
In addition, FSU failed on its first eight third-down conversions, stretching its streak to 18 dating to the regular-season finale against Florida on Nov. 26.
"It's nice to be able to talk about a Notre Dame football team that plays championship defense," Irish coach Brian Kelly said, "because that's what they did."
So did the Seminoles.
FSU had four sacks and held Notre Dame to 187 passing yards. The Irish scored on only one of their six trips into FSU territory.
Notre Dame's only offensive touchdown came four minutes into the third quarter, when projected NFL first-round draft pick Michael Floyd tipped the ball to himself four times before corralling a 5-yard pass from Rees for a 14-0 lead.
That's when FSU's leaky offensive line plugged its holes and its offense began to click. Notre Dame had only one sack in the second half while the Seminoles recorded 186 of their 290 yards.
"I think the guys up front finally realized they could play," FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said.
A 77-yard kickoff return by Joyner set up Dustin Hopkins' 42-yard field goal that cut the deficit to 14-3. A diving third-down catch by freshman Rashad Greene set up a tumbling touchdown reception by Bert Reed on the first play of the fourth quarter.
"That got us started," said Manuel, who was 5-of-9 passing for 96 yards in the fourth quarter.
The defense gave Manuel some help. Bradham jumped in front of an Andrew Hendrix pass on the next series and returned the interception to the Irish 18.
Manuel hit Greene two plays later for a leaping 15-yard touchdown that gave FSU a 15-14 lead with 13:18 left.
"It might not always be the prettiest," Reed said of his quarterback's play, "but he gets the job done."
FSU's defense finished it off. Defensive end Cornellius Carradine's sack squashed one Irish drive. Soon after, the 'Noles extended their lead on Hopkins' 29-yard field goal.
Cornerback Mike Harris hindered another Notre Dame possession by tackling running back Cierre Wood for a 5-yard loss, and cornerback Terrance Brooks ended a threat with an interception in the end zone with 2:48 left.
Fisher said he knew FSU couldn't panic because of its early struggles from a banged-up, young offensive line.
"Some of these guys know patience isn't always my best virtue," Fisher said.
But Thursday, his patience paid off with FSU's fourth consecutive bowl victory.
Times staff writer Matt Baker can be reached at [email protected]