It's time. Time for the Champs Sports Bowl. Time for a win. Time for Notre Dame football. Irish UNDerground will have all the angles in and around the action covered throughout tonight's game. Be sure to share your questions, comments and complaints and let your voice be heard throughout the Notre Dame nation. Want to track all the action from your mobile device? No problem. Simply click (or to be phone friendly, "touch") HERE.
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With kickoff just over 48 hours away, today was the equivalent of a Thursday if this were a normal game week. Some rain passed through OrlaNDo this afternoon, as the Irish hit the practice field for the final time this season. They will hold one final walkthrough tomorrow, before battling Florida State in the Champs Sports Bowl on Dec. 29. But before focusing on football after an early lunch at the hotel, the Irish joined the Seminoles for a great morning at the Give Kids The World Village in nearby Kissimmee. Give Kids The World is a "70-acre, nonprofit 'storybook' resort, located near Central Florida's most beloved attractions, where children with life-threatening illnesses and their families are treated to weeklong, cost-free fantasy vacations." As Louise, one of the volunteers at GKTW said to the players as they arrived, "You want it to be the best Tuesday of their lives, and you're going to make that happen for them today." Taking some time away from football, the Irish and the Seminoles brightened up the lives of many children, and spread joy to their families, simply by spending quality time with them. For fans, sometimes the emotional interest invested in the outcomes of games causes us to overlook the fact that teams are more than collections of athletes. People always see the hard-hitting, physical and aggressive side of college football players. But sports and life, are about much more than that. They are about the children's laughter and the smiles on the faces of their parents as they get ice cream from Darius Fleming and autographs from Michael Floyd and Harrison Smith, take pictures with Manti Te'o, dance with Mike Golic Jr. and Andrew Hendrix and play catch with Carlo Calabrese and Jamoris Slaughter. (These, just a few of the special moments I saw this morning.) The children and their families enjoyed their day, not because they got to spend it with athletes who've scored big touchdowns or made important tackles, but because they were struck by the kindness of complete strangers. They were surrounded by a team of young men, a group of student-athletes whose lives, at the end of the day, will be measured in the positive impact they had on the world and those around them, not in the accolades they achieve on the football field. - Josh Flynt ('11)
When Notre Dame and Florida State meet on Thursday in the 22nd Champs Sports Bowl, the game will not have the BCS implications that many may have suspected at the start of the 2011 season. Ranked No. 16 and No. 6 respectively in the preseason Associated Press polls, both the Fighting Irish and the Seminoles fell short of expectations. Still, this week's game at the Florida Citrus Bowl has particular intrigue because the winning program will have momentum and a leg up on preparation for the 2012 season. But the future is not the only reason this matchup is being discussed as one of the more interesting non-BCS bowl games of 2011. It is also about the past. Over the long history of college football, Florida State may only be a blip on the radar. They started playing football in 1947 and have won two national championships, compared with Notre Dame's eleven titles. However, the Seminoles are one of the most accomplished teams of the last quarter-century. They won ten or more games in 14 consecutive seasons from 1987-2000, and this season marks their 30th straight year playing in a postseason bowl. Florida State and Notre Dame have played six times, with the Seminoles holding a 4-2 advantage. The teams met most recently in 2003 (a 37-0 FSU victory), and most notably, a decade earlier, in 1993. ESPN's College GameDay took its show on the road for the first time, visiting South Bend for the "Game of the Century" between the top-ranked Seminoles and No. 2 Fighting Irish. NBC began the broadcast with nearly a three-minute segment narrated by Bob Costas, considered by many one of the greatest pregame introductions ever. (Speaking of which, I would love for NBC to bring back this music from that game for its current Notre Dame broadcasts. So 90's.) And somehow, with all the hype, the game itself did not disappoint. The Irish jumped out to a 21-7 halftime lead and led by two scores late in the fourth quarter. However, eventual Heisman Trophy winner Charlie Ward would not back down. The Florida State quarterback hit Kez McCorvey for a touchdown to make it 31-24 and the Seminole defense forced a three-and-out on Notre Dame's next possession. Ward drove the Seminoles deep into Irish territory, but on the game's final play, Notre Dame defensive back Shawn Wooden batted down his pass near the end zone to preserve the victory. Notre Dame seemed to be in the driver's seat for the national championship, but the Irish lost to Boston College the following week, and it was Florida State who had the last laugh, going on to defeat Nebraska in the Orange Bowl and claim its first title. In the 1996 Orange Bowl, Bobby Bowden and Lou Holtz's squads met again. Notre Dame built a 26-14 lead, but Florida State scored the game's final 17 points to win 31-26. It was the Seminoles tenth-straight bowl victory and the second of nine consecutive bowl losses for the Irish. In 2002, No. 6 Notre Dame visited Tallahassee, Fla. as a double-digit underdog. On the first Irish play from scrimmage, Carlyle Holiday hit Arnaz Battle for a 65-yard touchdown pass. In the third quarter, Notre Dame forced three turnovers over a four-minute span and opened up a 27-10 lead and went on to defeat the No. 11 Seminoles, 34-24. In recent years, neither team has achieved the level of success it aspires to reach, but Thursday marks the beginning of a new chapter in this young series. Both Florida State and Notre Dame are on the rise, so do not be surprised if we see the Seminoles and Fighting Irish battling for postseason supremacy again sometime in the near future. The winner of the Champs Sports Bowl in Orlando moves one step closer to being back among college football's elite. - Josh Flynt ('11)
It didn't quite look or feel like the Christmas I'm used to, but the Notre Dame football family celebrated the holidays here in OrlaNDo. Team chaplain and Dillon Hall rector Father Paul Doyle presided at Christmas Mass, which was followed by a brunch for the team, coaches, staff and the rest of the ND travel party. The players ate first and headed out to team meetings, before hitting the field for their second bowl practice of the trip. Afterwards, many of the players headed to Disney World for a few hours of fun. (See Gary Gray's Twitter photo for one of the funniest moments of the week thus far.) It remains to be seen if Disney topped last night's visit to SeaWorld, where Shamu was clearly a team favorite. The Irish move one step closer to gameday tomorrow, with practice in the afternoon and a trip to Universal Studios. We'll have more updates coming soon, so keep an eye on Irish UNDerground and Facebook.com/NDFootball. And on this Christmas night, I'll leave you with this all-time classic from Mr. Sinatra. - Josh Flynt ('11)
Dec. 23 was a great first day in OrlaNDo, but today, Christmas Eve is when the festivities truly began. If you follow any of the players on Twitter, you may have noticed a lot of talk this morning about airports. With a short break from practice and football responsibilities over the past few days, most of the team was traveling from back home. The "Our Team, Our Story" video above provides Mike Golic Jr.'s perspective of the trip as he departed from Connecticut earlier today. Players arrived throughout the morning and everyone was in Orlando by mid-afternoon for a team meeting and practice. Practice will be followed by a team meal, before many of the players depart for an evening at Sea World. Walking around during these first couple days, the size of our hotel is a bit overwhelming. I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say it might take me longer to walk from my room to our "office" here in Florida than it takes to drive from my house in South Bend to the Guglielmino Athletics Complex back on campus. That being said, the hotel has three pools (plus a children's pool), jogging trails, a golf course, tennis, basketball and volleyball courts, and multiple cafes and restaurants. But don't be alarmed. That's not to mention the banquet and conference rooms that have become dining areas, position meeting rooms and a players' lounge. The bowl trip is an opportunity for the players, coaches and their families to enjoy some time together, but Coach Kelly, his staff and team remain focused on their matchup with Florida State next Thursday. If the Shamrock Series was designed to take the university to a different city, Bowl Week takes the entire Gug on the road. For me, it doesn't quite feel like Christmas Eve. Usually at this time, I'm getting out of 4 p.m. Mass and preparing for a nice dinner with my family. This is the first Christmas I've ever spent away from them and the winter weather of upstate New York. Going for a run this afternoon in a t-shirt and shorts, it felt more like spring break or summer vacation than the holiday season. The hotel is definitely not void of Christmas decorations, but something seems strange about walking outside and seeing palm trees and green grass rather than icicle lights and snow. It's tough to miss the holidays at home with my parents and brothers, but I know there are some people who are away from their loved ones and may have no one to share their Christmas with. I feel truly blessed to be surrounded by the Notre Dame family here in OrlaNDo. It's a different kind of Christmas for me, but one I will definitely enjoy and certainly not forget. I hope everyone has a happy, safe and joyous Christmas Eve. Merry Christmas, Irish fans. - Josh Flynt ('11)
Just two days before Christmas, it was in the 30's and overcast in South Bend - pretty standard for this time of year. I might even say that seems warm for what I've grown accustomed to over the last four years and previous 18 living in upstate New York. But then came the magic of the airplane. Three hours and 1,100 miles later, we arrived in Orlando, greeted by sunshine and mid-80's. (The photo above doesn't quite do the weather justice. That was actually taken from inside the tinted windows of our bus at the airport.) Flying on a charter flight for the first time was quite an experience - Movies, food, in-flight Internet and more food. Now I understand why people say, "Once you've flown on a charter flight, you won't want to go back to commercial." We arrived at the team hotel just after 4:00 pm. With over 1,500 rooms, and seemingly dozens of conference rooms and dining areas, it feels more like a small city than a hotel. Shortly after we arrived, our UND.com video crew spoke briefly with Coach Kelly, who joked that moving a team of 105 players to Orlando was easier than traveling with his three children. A few players traveled on the South Bend charter this afternoon, but most will arrive on Christmas Eve from their home airports. There will be a team meeting in the afternoon, before the first bowl practice in Orlando and a trip to Sea World tomorrow night. The excitement has only just begun here in Orlando. We'll have plenty of other updates coming throughout the week right here on Irish UNDerground, at UND.com and on the football Facebook page. It's beginning to look a lot like bowl season. - Josh Flynt ('11)
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