The day before his team took the field for its Champs Sports Bowl matchup with Notre Dame, Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher acknowledged that he had higher hopes for his team than how they ended up in 2011.
Loaded with talent and expectations in the preseason, the No. 25 Seminoles squandered early season opportunities against ranked foes and fizzled again late in the year to end any path back to the Bowl Championship Series.
Thursday night's 18-14 win over Notre Dame in front of a sellout crowd at Florida's Citrus Bowl might not have been the national stage FSU expected to be on this season, but how it won the game could be proof it is finally making progress.
The Seminoles rallied from a 14-point second-half deficit and used a pair of touchdown passes by E.J. Manuel and two field goals from Dustin Hopkins to earn their fourth straight bowl win and second under Fisher.
"I'm proud to coach this football team," Fisher said. "... We've had a lot of trials and tribulations...But that team has special character about it."
FSU receiver Rashad Greene, who caught one of Manuel's touchdown passes, was selected the game's MVP.
"We had a very good finish," Manuel said. "We play for each other, not individual stats and performance. We just beat Notre Dame. We're going to feel good for months."
The Seminoles had just 18 yards of total offense in the first half. They finished with just 290, including going 3 for 14 on third down, and got an efficient night from Manuel. He played behind a young offensive line, but was 20 for 31 passing for 249 yards.
Injuries forced the Seminoles to start four freshman on their line and they gave up five sacks, but their defense picked off Notre Dame quarterbacks Tommy Rees and Andrew Hendrix three times and also had four sacks.
Notre Dame shuffled between Rees and Hendrix throughout the game, but both struggled. They were a combined 19 for 35 and 187 yards passing.
FSU scored on all four of its red zone chances.
The Irish also were without their biggest offensive weapon late, with receiver Michael Floyd being forced to the sideline following a third quarter touchdown catch with what coach Brian Kelly described afterward was an "upper body injury."
He returned to the game, but was a non-factor.
"It started in South Florida," said Kelly of the Irish's recurring theme of turnovers and missed opportunities. "And it continued to shoot itself throughout the entire year. We know what we need to do. We've already talked about it, and the players that are going to be back for the 2012 football season will be committed to getting that end done."
Junior linebacker Manti Te'o, who led Notre Dame with 13 tackles and got in on a sack Thursday, said fatigue was not a factor in the Irish not being able to maintain pressure on Manuel in the fourth quarter.
"They made their corrections and we just, as a defense, we just needed to get to the quarterback and we knew what E.J. could do back there when he had time...So that is something that we have to look at.
"We have a long time to prepare for next year, and when that time comes, that doesn't happen again."
After some stagnant offense on both sides in the first half, FSU trailed 14-0 early in the third quarter before finding some momentum through the air.
The Seminoles closed the gap to 14-9 with an 18-yard touchdown pass from Manuel to Bert Reed to open the fourth quarter, but failed on their 2-point conversion attempt.
They took the lead just 1:32 later after Nigel Bradham intercepted a Hendrix pass inside the Notre Dame 20 to set up an 18-yard touchdown catch by Greene to make it 15-14 with just over 13 minutes to play following another failed 2-point try.
The Seminoles added their second field goal of the game a series later.
Notre Dame punted on its next possession, but pinned FSU inside its own 5 and forced a quick three-and-out.
A poor punt by the Seminoles and a facemask penalty on the return gave the Irish the ball on the FSU 28 with 3:56 to play, but Rees was picked off in the end zone with 2:48 left and FSU was able run out most of the remaining time.
Notre Dame took a 14-0 lead on its opening drive of the second half by capping a nine-play, 62-yard drive with a 5-yard touchdown pass from Rees to Floyd. Floyd fought Seminoles cornerback Greg Reid for the ball on to play, juggling it multiple times before finally getting his hands around it.
Reid stayed down on the turf after the play and left the game with concussion symptoms.
FSU bounced right back with a 77-yard kickoff return by Lamarcus Joyner, but Notre Dame's fifth sack of the night on Manuel helped force the Seminoles to settle for a 42-yard field goal by Hopkins.
Safety Terrance Brooks, who had a late interception to help seal the win, said belief in themselves is the biggest thing they will carry into next season.
"Just go out there and do it," he said. "You know you've got it in you. We went out there and read our keys and got the job done."