NASHVILLE, Tenn. - When Florida State walked onto the field for Monday's Music City Bowl against Kentucky, few gave the Noles much of a chance. Playing without 24 scholarship players left back in Tallahassee - most for their involvement in an academic misconduct scandal - FSU faced one of its most daunting tasks in years.
Despite the odds, FSU quarterback Drew Weatherford sensed the Noles were ready to play, ready to show the country that they wouldn't go down easy.
"When we came onto the field, our presence was really felt," Weatherford said. "I feel like over the past couple of years, teams probably don't fear us as much as they used to. That's something we're trying to get back."
Is it possible for a team to do that by losing 35-28, with the defeat uncertain until a Hail Mary pass dropped to the turf as the clock ran out? That's questionable, but from hearing FSU coaches and players talking after the game, they seemed to believe they did.
"It was a game that you could have had a slaughter," FSU coach Bobby Bowden said. "I was wondering, golly, are we going to be able to hang in with these guys. Our kids played ... probably as hard as any time we have played."
FSU fell behind 35-21 with 5:19 remaining in the game, but despite a lineup missing seven players who started the regular-season finale at Florida and a defense playing without nine regulars, the Noles managed to climb back to make it a game until Weatherford's final pass fell incomplete as time expired.
Weatherford's 7-yard touchdown pass to Greg Carr trimmed Kentucky's lead to 35-28 with 2:14 left. After forcing Kentucky to punt, FSU took over at its 20 with 1:09 remaining. That drive ended when Weatherford was intercepted. However, center Ryan McMahon recovered a fumble on the play to give FSU possession one final time with 29 seconds left.
From there, Weatherford drove the Noles into Kentucky territory before running out of time and luck. For Kentucky, the victory gave it back-to-back bowl victories for the first time in 55 years. For the Noles, it was somewhat of a moral victory considering the circumstances and the national skewering the school has taken the past two weeks.
"We fought the whole game," said linebacker Geno Hayes said. "We didn't give up no matter how many points they scored. That was our game plan, not to give up no matter what the score was."
The loss ended FSU's season at 7-6, the same record the Noles had in 2006. Considering the major staff overhaul made by Bowden at the end of last season - highlighted by the hiring of offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher - whether the season can be determined a success will be debated among fans.
Fisher admits he wanted more, but at the same time, he was proud of the way the Noles fought to the end in Monday's loss.
"You win seven games, and that's not our expectations," Fisher said. "But maybe that's the reality we're at right now."
While fatigue looked to play a factor in the second half, especially for a Noles defense that surrendered 500 yards for the second consecutive game, Kentucky quarterback Andre Woodson played well enough to give FSU's regular defense plenty of problems.
Woodson was named the game's MVP after throwing for 358 yards and four touchdowns.
"He did a good job of nickel-and-diming us down the field," cornerback Tony Carter said. "That wears on the defense, especially when you are limited with players."
FSU also helped Woodson and the Wildcats, committing several penalties, none more damaging than a Hayes personal foul in the third quarter that helped Kentucky drive for a score.
In the end, the Noles couldn't overcome their depleted roster and Kentucky's prolific offense. But at least they overcame the perception they were going to be blown out.
"We want to win every ballgame, but it was definitely a little special just because of being outmanned like we were, and missing a bunch of guys who we know would die to be here," Weatherford said. "We were kind of playing for them, and playing for our fans."