Before tonight's Sugar Bowl, Florida State believed that with Coach Bobby Bowden's game plan, quarterback Chris Weinke's arm and wide receiver Peter Warrick's legs, it could defeat Virginia Tech. Still, the Seminoles figured, they could use all the help they could get.

So before boarding the team bus for the Louisiana Superdome, about 80 players and coaches gathered in a meeting room of the team hotel for a prayer session, led by team chaplain Clint Purvis.

The meeting's theme was "weathering the storm," referring both to tonight's game and Florida State's season, which has included several off-field incidents.

"You will not win a national championship or anything else unless you have God in your life," Purvis told the players, asking the players to hold hands with the seniors standing in the middle.

The mood was somber as players were given cards with such expressions as "some succeed because they were destined to, but most succeed because they were determined to."

The seriousness of the meeting was a sharp departure from earlier in the day, when players spent much of their time trying to avoid the throngs of autograph seekers that had gathered in the team hotel's lobby.

Defensive tackle Jerry Johnson donned a black wig, sunglasses and a hat, a disguise that worked until teammates spotted him and called out his name.

Mother's Helper

The mother of Virginia Tech cornerback Anthony Midget had a tough choice to make last month: her son's graduation or the Sugar Bowl.

Cheryl Midget decided to travel from Florida to Blacksburg to see her son get his diploma, thinking that she couldn't also afford to go to New Orleans for the national championship game.

But now, thanks to a Christmas story in the Palm Beach Post and donations from community groups and individuals, she and two other Hokie moms from Clewiston, Fla., attended the Sugar Bowl.

Using the donated money, Midget got a van and a driver, and traveled to New Orleans with Cynthia Summers, mother of linebacker Phillip Summers, and Sarah Blain-Franklin, mother of defensive tackle Thenus Franklin, the Associated Press reported. The mothers also got $1,500 for the trip.

"I said, 'Ooooh, Anthony. Oh, Lord, Momma got a blessing today. Momma's going to get to see you play,' " Cheryl Midget, a single mother with six sons, told the Associated Press. "He was so glad. So glad."

Passing Glory

Robert Moderhak of Holmes Beach, Fla., made one of the biggest plays at the Sugar Bowl: He won $500,000, with a little help from former Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann.

Moderhak had a chance to win $2 million in a halftime contest in which he and Theismann had to throw a football through a 2-by-2-foot opening.

But Theismann connected on only one of four passes, each of which was worth $50,000. Moderhak then stepped up and added a zero to that figure by throwing the football through the same square from 15 yards.

Moderhak, picked in a national sweepstakes, said he completed 60 percent in practice. Theismann who played in two Super Bowls, said before tonight's game: "I haven't been practicing at all. I've been saving my arm."

BCS Ratings Rise

Charles Bloom, the Southeastern Conference's assistant commissioner and a Bowl Championship Series spokesman, said tonight the early television ratings for the BCS's first three games of this bowl season--the Rose, Orange and Fiesta--are up over last season.

"We're pleased with the early ratings we've seen on the three BCS bowl games," Bloom said. "They were entertaining games that were played, for the most part, closer than everyone expected. The type of matchups that the BCS was able to provide were able to generate the ratings--Alabama-Michigan, Tennessee-Nebraska, Wisconsin-Stanford. We hope this game can draw a good rating, too."

Bloom declined to comment on reports that ABC has offered the BCS an extension of its current television contract.

A Hokies History

As the past president of the Sugar Bowl and a current executive committee member, Chuck Zatarain was the one who formally extended Virginia Tech an invitation to the 1995 Sugar Bowl.

He brought his daughter, who was a senior in high school, and the two fell so in love with the Blacksburg campus that she enrolled there the following year.

Four years later, Zatarain found himself involved with the Hokies again, this time to speak at the team pep rally Monday night. His daughter is set to graduate from Virginia Tech this spring.

"My official comment as a representative of the Sugar Bowl is that I'd like to welcome Frank Beamer and the rest of the Hokies to New Orleans," he told the crowd.

"But as a Hokie dad, my unofficial comment is, 'Let's go beat the hell out of Florida State.' "

Bonus Coverage

Virginia Tech Coach Frank Beamer received three months' salary, about $45,000, for getting the Hokies to tonight's game, and would have earned another $100,000 if he won. Florida State Coach Bobby Bowden got $75,000, win or lose.

Staff writers Angie Watts and Hamil R. Harris, and special correspondent Lee Feinswog contributed to this report.