ORLANDO — The Florida State culture Mike Norvell has spent three years creating is hard to quantity. Chemistry doesn’t show up in a box score. Foundations don’t look like much until you build on them.
But eventually, with enough work, enough talent and enough patience, culture crystallizes into something tangible, something special. Like 10 wins and a thrilling 35-32 win over Oklahoma in Thursday night’s Cheez-It Bowl.
Sure, the victory was closer than it should have been for No. 13 FSU (10-3), and uglier than Norvell would have liked. But it was the culmination of the all-encompassing program Norvell calls the CLIMB.
“Everybody talks about family,” said Norvell after getting doused with the orange crackers to celebrate his first bowl victory at FSU. “These guys, they show up, and they live like family. They believe. They invest. They sacrifice. It took every one of them today.”
That alone is rare. It’s hard to blame a high-end player from opting out to protect a future NFL payday, but the fact that it didn’t happen at FSU is a testament to what Norvell has built.
One NFL prospect, defensive back Jammie Robinson, led all players with 13 tackles plus a sack. He also came up with Oklahoma’s only turnover, a fourth-quarter fumble in FSU territory that led to a Seminoles touchdown.
Another, defensive end Jared Verse, was more disruptive than his stat line (five tackles, 2 ½ for a loss) suggest. Verse said the opposing lineman mocked him in the closing seconds, suggesting he’d never make it to the NFL.
“Watch this next play,” Verse replied.
That next play: a sack (with teammate Dennis Briggs) that sealed FSU’s first 10-win season since 2016.
“It was a great feeling,” Verse said.
There were plenty more around the program as years of personal growth coalesced into a team triumph. Jordan Travis — a project, at best, when Norvell took over after the 2019 season — became the 11th player in FSU history to pass for more than 3,000 yards in a season. He was the game’s MVP with 468 total yards and two passing touchdowns, yet but spent much of his postgame interview talking about the work that still remains.
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Receiver Johnny Wilson had an ugly drop on a wide-open deep ball but made up for it by snagging a one-handed 58-yard catch that set up the winning score. Wilson finished with 202 yards, the first 200-yard game by an FSU receiver since Travis Rudolph in 2016.
Kicker Ryan Fitzgerald has struggled, missing 7 of his 17 attempts entering Thursday on a field-goal unit that ranked No. 122 nationally. But with the game on the line and 55 seconds remaining, he calmly drilled a 32-yarder for the win.
“He answered the call,” Norvell said.
So did his entire team, in a way it didn’t earlier in his tenure (the overtime loss to Notre Dame to open 2021) or earlier this season (the three October losses by 16 total points).
The Seminoles didn’t flinch when they went down 14-3 early in the second and showed no signs of stopping the run. A defense that allowed Oklahoma (6-7) to convert on 9 of its 19 third- and fourth-down attempts held on two of the last three drives. An offense that looked out of rhythm early scored on four of its five second-half possessions.
“It was no different than usual,” Travis said. “We’re made for times like that.”
It took three years to make them this way, for Norvell to forge his team into the kind of program that won’t crumble the way it did for most of the last five dreadful seasons. But he did it.
It’s too early to say the Seminoles are back. Oklahoma has a great history but not a great team. The Sooners’ rebuilding process is a step or two behind, even with former UCF star Dillon Gabriel at quarterback.
But it is fair to say that FSU has returned to national relevance. They’ll have a shot at finishing in the top 10. Even if they don’t, the mystique of a 10-win season still resonates, even if it doesn’t tell the whole story of this program’s growth.
“This team will not be remembered just because of a number,” Norvell said. “It’s going to be remembered by the way that they played.”
By playing like Florida State again.
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