Working without his star running back and one of his best receivers, 19-year-old freshman sensation quarterback Michael Vick dazzled, ducked and dashed his way all over the artificial turf of the Superdome tonight, trying everything Coach Frank Beamer could think of and a few things he couldn't in an effort to grab Virginia Tech its first national championship.
By the third quarter, his efforts had taken the Hokies from a 21-point deficit to their first lead of the game, but the Florida State Seminoles had just as explosive an athlete on their side, and in the end, it was wide receiver Peter Warrick who triumphed. With three touchdowns, a two-point conversion and speed that would make a gazelle jealous, Warrick helped rally the Seminoles to a 46-29 victory, closing the game with 18 unanswered points and Florida State's second national championship in seven years.
By the end of the evening, the crowd was alternating chants of "Bobby Bowden" and "Peter Warrick," and the Seminoles, who had marched down the field with their arms raised even before the first ball was kicked, had written themselves into the record books. They became the first Florida State team to go 12-0, and, because they maintained their No. 1 ranking from the preseason through tonight, became the first team to go wire-to-wire in the Associated Press poll since the poll began preseason rankings in 1950.
The Hokies, who had climbed to No. 2 with an 11-0 regular season record, saw their hopes for an undefeated season dashed, although considering the fight they had put up, players did not appear too downtrodden in the final minutes. They had already overcome so much--getting outscored 14-7 in the first quarter despite holding the ball for more than 13 minutes, losing tailback Shyrone Stith to a sprained ankle in the second quarter and getting limited use out of wide receiver Ricky Hall, who has a broken foot.
"The game could have been a runaway for both teams at times," said Florida State Coach Bobby Bowden, who won his first championship with the Seminoles in 1993. "We nearly ran away with it early, they nearly ran away with it in the third quarter and then we came back and won the game.
"I knew Vick was going to make big plays. I told [Warrick], 'Pete, you have got to counter Vick's big plays.' And he sure did. It was a team effort, but he gave us a lot of bullets."
The game was a triumph for Warrick, who lost his chance at the Heisman Trophy this year when he was arrested on theft charges and suspended for two games. It also was a triumph for Bowden, who joined his sons Terry, now an ABC analyst, and Tommy, the coach at Clemson, on the list of coaches who have led teams to undefeated seasons. He will now be able to fill a picture frame in his office, the one he left empty until he could have a photograph of a Florida State team with a perfect record.
"They deserve to win," Vick said. "We did everything in our power that we could to win the football game, but it wasn't good enough. In my heart we're still champions. Every man on this team, from the first man to the last man, we're still champions."
While they didn't walk away game-winners, the evening was something of a triumph for the Hokies, who put season-long criticism of their toughness to rest with their performance tonight. Beamer even took a call from President Clinton after the game, noting that "when he takes time out to call the team that lost, it means something."
However, Beamer did say, "We had a good crying session in that locker room just a few minutes ago."
Virginia Tech came out sharp on the game's opening drive, thrashing through the Florida State defense as if it was made of cobwebs, but two early mistakes kept the Hokies from scoring. A fumble on the 4-yard line stopped their first drive, giving Florida State the ball, and a blocked punt a few drives later let Florida State score. The Seminoles had already gotten a touchdown from Warrick by that point, and even a touchdown catch by Andre Davis late in the first quarter couldn't help the Hokies catch up as the Seminoles raced out to a 28-7 lead.
Virginia Tech started to come back just before halftime, getting first a 43-yard rush and then a three-yard touchdown from Vick to cut the lead to 28-14. Kicker Shayne Graham made a short field goal to tighten the score to 28-17 midway in the third quarter, and the Hokies got even closer on their next possession, when Andre Kendrick ran 29 yards for a touchdown. A two-point conversion try failed, but Virginia Tech was within 28-23.
The Hokies' defense then got a chance to shine after pressuring 27-year-old quarterback Chris Weinke into throwing the game's lone interception, a long bomb that landed in the arms of cornerback Anthony Midget. The offense reciprocated by getting Tech's first lead of the game, pushing the score to 29-28 when Kendrick ran up the middle seven plays later for a six-yard touchdown.
Once again, Beamer tried the two-point conversion, and once again, the Seminoles stopped the Hokies from scoring.
Virginia Tech would never score again.
The Seminoles then got a 14-yard touchdown reception from Ron Dugans to finish an 85-yard, 11-play drive to start the fourth quarter. Florida State then succeeded where the Hokies had not, completing a two-point conversion when Warrick caught the ball in the end zone to give the Seminoles a 36-29 lead. When the Hokies tried to keep up with them, they were squelched, losing the ball when Vick fumbled at his 37-yard line. Safety Sean Key jumped on top of it, and Florida State jumped on its chance to pile more points on the board, extending its lead to 39-29 when Sebastian Janikowski knocked in a 32-yard field goal.
"We were running, but then all of a sudden, their big plays killed us," Kendrick said. "The momentum was there, it just didn't go our way this time. . . . We just let it slip away."
Warrick added another six points with a 43-yard catch that showed every bit of the instinct and explosive speed that will earn him a high spot in this spring's NFL draft, and Janikowski capped the game with an extra point.
"Right before that play, I asked the offense, 'You want me to finish them?' and they said yes," Warrick said. "We just came together and stayed focused on what we had to do to win that ballgame."