Late in the third quarter of tonight's national college football championship game, the southwest side of the Louisiana Superdome erupted in a deafening cheer. The Virginia Tech football team, ranked No. 2 in the nation, had overcome a 21-point deficit to take the lead over No. 1-ranked Florida State in the Sugar Bowl.

In the end, it did not matter that much, at least to many Hokies fans, that the team went on to lose its first-ever attempt at a national championship, 46-29, to the Seminoles. What mattered, what has defined this season for Virginia Tech more than any other in its 105-year history, is that the underdog took a large bite out of a perennial college football power. Virginia Tech, a team that has never before had this type of national limelight cast its way, left a visible mark.

The more than 40,000 Virginia Tech fans who found their way to New Orleans were still standing, waving their bright orange pompoms when the final seconds ticked off the clock and the Hokies turned to salute the crowd that has shared this tremendous ride with them.

"I don't think the loss is that important," said a teary-eyed Paul Torgersen, Virginia Tech's president who was supposed to retire at the end of 1999 but extended his reign five days to be president when the Hokies played for the national championship. "Coach [Frank] Beamer just got off the phone with President Clinton, and the governor of Virginia just left the locker room, too. He told those kids that this just might be the greatest sports moment in Virginia history, and I certainly second that comment. This is still an incredible moment for Virginia Tech."

Virginia Tech is a public university in Blacksburg, just outside of Roanoke. With about 26,000 students, it is the largest university in the commonwealth. Northern Virginia residents make up 29 percent of Virginia Tech's in-state students as of the fall 1999 semester, according to the school's Web site. The school's traditional academic strength is its science and technology programs, but Virginia Tech also has a renowned business school, among other disciplines.

However, nothing brought it attention like this football season.

And all of the Hokies fans here seemed to share a similar sentiment: Regardless of the outcome of the game, the trip was well worth it.

"For our school, this is awesome because playing for the national championship gives our school a lot of recognition," said Sean Belanger, a sales executive from Fairfax who came to the game with two friends from Northern Virginia. "I have been to three Super Bowls, and this is the best time that I have ever had because my school is playing in the national championship."

Megan Moseley, daughter of former Washington Redskin Mark Moseley, is a 1999 graduate of Virginia Tech who agreed that the feel of the national championship is far better than that of the Super Bowl.

"I was young when my dad played professional football," Megan Moseley, 22, said. "But I've been to the Super Bowl, and this is much more exciting."

Bernard Alvano, 28, is a 1994 Virginia Tech graduate who works as a computer programmer in Falls Church. Alvano said that despite the outcome of the game, "we still love our Hokies, no matter what."

Contrary to popular belief, the name "Hokies" has nothing to do with turkeys, the school's mascot. "Hokies" means nothing at all, having been coined by O.M. Stull, Class of 1896, in a nonsensical spirit yell called "Old Hokie."

At Northern Virginia eating and drinking places where patrons--many of them Hokies fans in the school colors of maroon and orange--watched the game, reactions often mirrored the fluctuations in the team's fortunes.

In fact, Mike McGarey, 40, of Springfield, served as a sort of one-man Greek chorus, reflecting the emotional ups and downs stirred by the contest, which he and many others witnessed at Kilroys in the Ravensworth Shopping Center.

"This game is dragging," he observed early on, as the Seminoles forged an early lead. Asked after a subsequent Seminole score whether he was still optimistic about the Hokies' chances, he replied: "Maybe less so now." But then the Hokies put points on the board and before the first half ended, McGarey observed that "anything can happen."

In the second half, Virginia Tech was first to score, and the crowd in Kilroy's became more animated, chanting, "Let's Go, Hokies! Let's Go!"

When the Hokies surged into the lead, and the crowd erupted in cheering, and exchanged exuberant high-fives, McGarey appeared vindicated: "I told you," he said.

And when the final gun sounded, with Virginia Tech on the short end of the score, he put a good face on it. "They showed they belonged on a national stage," he said of the Hokies. Alumni, he said, "can be very proud." But, he allowed, it "could have gone much better."

Crowds also gathered near televisions at spots such as Tino's Sports Lounge in Fairfax, where manager Jennifer Cohn said the place was "slammed," packed, that is, with fans of both teams, in school colors, "very excited . . . [and] screaming" at appropriate moments.

At P J Skidoos in Fairfax, people wearing Hokies campus colors broke out in cheers and shouts whenever the game seemed to go the way of Virginia Tech.

Many in Blacksburg, a four-hour drive from Washington, had packed up their school color wardrobes, and in some instances closed down their businesses, to head to New Orleans and personally witness Tech's shot at football history.

Though the streets of Blacksburg are normally quiet during the holiday break at Virginia Tech, they were almost desolate today. A front-page headline in the Roanoke Times today asked, "Will anyone be left in Blacksburg to celebrate a win?"

Fans slowly streamed into the town's streets after the game, saying they weren't disappointed after watching the Hokies' comeback. Police cars were perched at intersections and parking lots in the downtown area, but fans dispersed peacefully.

"It was great," said Ed Lewis, of Blacksburg. "It was a really exciting game except for the last few minutes. Florida State made Tech make mistakes they didn't make before."

Todd Clark, 26, of Bridgewater, N.J., drove seven hours to Blacksburg so he could watch the game with fellow alumni. "There's no place better to watch the game," he said afterwards. "It was either here or New Orleans," he said.

Chris Perry, 33, a former trainer for the Virginia Tech team, arrived at Big Al's Sports Bar nearly four hours before the kickoff, and was hoarse but exhilarated afterwards. "I loved it," he said. "It was a fantastic game. We gave 'em a good run. Hey, we played in the national championship."

Staff writers Martin Weil and Allan Lengel in Washington, Tom Jackman in Blacksburg, Va., and Hamil R. Harris in New Orleans contributed to this report.

CAPTION: It's not looking good for Hokies fans at Big Al's Sports Bar in Blacksburg, Va. Watching the game, late in the fourth quarter, are Louanne Lyons, center, a Tech professor, and Vickie Lowery, the parent of a Tech student.

CAPTION: Gerald Ebert, of Christiansburg, Va., and other Hokies fans at Big Al's Sports Bar in Blacksburg, Va., cheer a Tech touchdown in the second quarter.