CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The game was over. Virginia Tech knew it. The scoreboard pretty much confirmed it.
And all of the fans who decided to leave the stadium early on a wet, freezing night at the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game were pretty certain about it.
Still Florida State continued to play as if it had something to prove.
And maybe the Seminoles did.
After a five-year absence in the league championship game, FSU lost 44-33 to Virginia Tech on Saturday night in a game that wasn't as close as the final score indicated. The Seminoles added a touchdown in the closing seconds and even tried a desperate onside kick that was more ceremonial than effective.
But for a program that has been chasing the ghosts of its past, it was another indication that FSU is not going away quietly.
"We're not going to quit. Ever," said receiver Bert Reed. "That's something coach (Jimbo) Fisher has taught us this year."
The Seminoles are heading to the Chick-fil-A Bowl in Atlanta on Dec. 31, which has to be a disappointment after having a shot at the Orange Bowl. But FSU still has a shot at its first 10-win season since 2003, and the program is finally back on equal footing with most of the ACC.
"I feel pretty good about where we're going and being able to compete against everybody in our league," Fisher said. "As young as we are, our confidence is growing. Hopefully, we can keep building on this in the offseason."
The Seminoles managed to keep close to Virginia Tech through three quarters Saturday night, but were eventually worn down by quarterback Tyrod Taylor who won his second ACC championship game MVP award.
What made it even worse was watching senior quarterback Christian Ponder stand helplessly on the sideline.
This was supposed to be his night. The culmination of a college career. He already has his Bachelor's degree. He already has one Master's degree. And a week ago he found himself four quarters away from an ACC championship, and with a needle draining fluid from his elbow.
Ponder hurt the elbow nearly two months ago and has been playing in pain ever since. He insisted early last week he would be ready for Virginia Tech, but by Friday afternoon Fisher had already made the decision to turn to EJ Manuel.
"They drained some fluid off his elbow and it wasn't fluid, it was blood. When you start draining blood you've got to be a little careful," Fisher said. "I wasn't going to jeopardize his future for one football game."
Manuel threw for 288 yards and kept the Seminoles in the game, but also had two costly interceptions.
"For the most part, the guy made plays late, competed well, kept his poise and composure," said Fisher. "I was very proud of the way he played in the game. I really was."