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.
Last night's 18-14 win over Notre Dame in front of a sellout crowd at Orlando'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 freshmen 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."
Seminoles 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."