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As half the Superdome crowd continued to celebrate the surreal, juggling, 43-yard scoring reception by Peter Warrick that had given Florida State a 17-point lead in the Sugar Bowl Tuesday night and clinched the Seminoles' second national title of the decade, Warrick knelt on one knee and cried. The touchdown had been his third of the night, a catch in the middle of the end zone while being interfered with by a Virginia Tech defender, and it had iced Florida State's 46-29 victory over the relentless Hokies. Warrick had found a lonely patch of artificial turf near the Seminoles' bench, genuflected and put his head on team chaplain Clint Purvis's shoulder. "This is the way I wanted it to end," he said, as tears streaked his cheeks. "This is why I came back."
In a sense, all the Seminoles came back: Warrick, not just for his senior year, when it seemed so obvious he was going to leave last winter for the NFL, but also from an embarrassing midseason arrest that followed him all the way to New Orleans like a dark shadow; Florida State junior quarterback Chris Weinke, from a painful neck injury that had prematurely ended his season a year ago; the whole team, from a listless, humiliating loss to Tennessee in last year's Fiesta Bowl national title game, and once again, on Tuesday night, when it seemed that Virginia Tech and its gifted redshirt freshman quarterback, Michael Vick, would beat the Seminoles.
The Hokies had taken a 29-28 lead on a six-yard touchdown run by junior tailback Andre Kendrick with 2:13 to play in the third quarter, completing a stirring comeback from a 28-7 deficit just 18� minutes into the game. It was Vick who had carried Virginia Tech back as part of a riveting national coming out in which he accounted for 225 yards passing and 97 on the ground, and was dazzling in his ability to turn losses into gains while taking a nightlong pounding. The Vick-timized Seminoles' defense was exhausted and on its heels. Their offense had sputtered. And now Florida State was behind. "We could have fainted right there," said center Eric Thomas after the game. "Last year we would have."
Instead the Seminoles' offense drove 85 yards in 11 plays to regain the lead. Weinke, the 27-year-old former minor league baseball player who may not return to Florida State for his senior season, completed all seven of his passes on the drive, including a 14-yarder to Ron Dugans for the touchdown. "We were a little shaken up, but we got together on the bench and said, 'Never die, never die,' " said Weinke. Florida State offensive coordinator Mark Richt said, "Weinke is the reason we didn't faint. He was the guy. He has just unbelievable self-belief."
Weinke also had Warrick, who displayed all the wares that made him the best college player in the country, though he was deprived of the Heisman Trophy for his infamous Dillard's department store discounts. Warrick scored the game's first touchdown on a 64-yard pass from Weinke, later went all the way on a 59-yard punt return and then got the game's final touchdown after asking his teammates, "Y'all want me to finish them?" Even the Florida State defense recovered, holding Virginia Tech to just 39 yards on the three possessions after the Hokies had taken the lead. "We worked all winter and all summer," said Seminoles All-America noseguard Corey Simon. "No way we could quit."
The Seminoles' victory tacked a second national championship (the first was in 1993) onto coach Bobby Bowden's resume and added to a remarkable run in which Florida State has won 10 or more games and finished no worse than No. 4 in the nation for 13 consecutive seasons. "The way they did it tonight makes me proud to say I'm a Seminole," said former Florida State All-America defensive end Peter Boulware of the Baltimore Ravens, who watched from the sideline. It also completed a 12-0 season for the team and gave Bowden the first perfect season of his 34-year career.
The Seminoles won because they never put the embarrassment of last year's 23-16 loss to Tennessee behind them. Florida State's appearance in that game had been a gift, delivered only when the BCS rankings imploded after losses by Kansas State and UCLA on the final weekend of the season. Once the Seminoles were invited, however, they sized up Tennessee as an overachieving, beatable opponent and brought unwarranted arrogance to the desert. They also brought untested Marcus Outzen as their starting quarterback, replacing Weinke, who had suffered a ruptured disk in his neck in the 11th game of the season. This combination of overconfidence and inexperience proved costly.
To outside observers Florida State's performance was ugly: only 253 yards of offense, just one pass reception by Warrick, two killing mistakes in the Seminoles' secondary and 12 penalties for 110 yards. The team's postgame locker room that night was funereal. "I remember the sound of people crying," says senior safety Sean Key. "Nobody was yelling or throwing anything. You could just hear all this crying." Bowden said he had never seen a team more emotionally crushed. It was Florida State's third appearance in a game to decide the national championship since the 1993 season and the Seminoles' second consecutive defeat, following a 52-20 pasting by Florida in the Sugar Bowl after the '96 season. Not long afterward, the phrase " Atlanta Braves of college football" began to circulate.
Bowden would have none of it. "Oh, yeah, my legacy is terrible," he said during a December interview in Tallahassee. "Thirteen years in the top four in the country, 13 straight years with at least 10 victories. It's just terrible because I haven't won but one national championship." Bowden laid on the sarcasm so thick that it was obvious how deeply he cared about pinning down another title and making amends for the loss to Tennessee. That defeat became the focal point for the Seminoles during the '99 season.
The players talked about the Tennessee loss in the weight room last winter. "You could hear them between sets," says strength and conditioning coach Dave Van Halanger. They talked about it during spring practice. They talked about it during squad meetings throughout the season. They even talked about it upon arrival in Louisiana this year. After the Seminoles' first practice in New Orleans, Simon told his teammates to think about what had happened last time. The Tennessee debacle came up so often that Bowden made a note to himself to cut mentions of the game from his pregame repertoire. "It's too negative a thing to bring up too close to the game," Bowden said two days before kick-off. "It's time to start getting them thinking about playing the very best they can."