Before tonight's national championship game, Florida State Coach Bobby Bowden was so worried about the brilliance of Virginia Tech quarterback Michael Vick, he went to his star receiver Peter Warrick with an unusual request. "I told him, 'Pete, you have got to counter Vick's big plays.' And he sure did it."

Warrick, the senior wide receiver many people think is the best player in the country, caught six passes for 163 yards and two touchdowns in Florida State's Sugar Bowl victory over Virginia Tech. He returned a punt 59 yards for a touchdown and caught a two-point conversion pass. "Boy, does he have a burst," Virginia Tech Coach Frank Beamer marveled. "What a performance by that guy."

Then, there was something else you can't find in the box score.

With Florida State ahead 39-29 and nearly eight minutes still remaining, but the outcome still in doubt, Bowden was contemplating whether he should play conservatively and try to run down the clock or really go after the Hokies. "Win the game right here, or sit on the ball," Bowden recalled thinking to himself.

Again, Bowden conferred with Warrick. "I told him, 'Pete, take off.' And Pete grabbed about four guys and said, 'Y'all want me to finish 'em off?' "

Chris Weinke then found Warrick for 43 yards and the touchdown that made it 46-29 and put the game out of the reach.

"It was a team win," Bowden said, "but I don't know if we could have won it without his firepower. He gave us a lot of bullets."

Warrick's season appeared to be completely derailed in October, when he was charged with theft for accepting a large and illegal discount at a Florida department store. Missing two games while the matter was settled, and the negative publicity surrounding it, might have cost Warrick the Heisman Trophy and the Biletnikoff Award, given to the nation's outstanding receiver.

"It's a mistake I'll never make again," Warrick said after his MVP performance tonight. "I came back for my senior year for two reasons: to win a national championship and to graduate. I didn't win the Heisman and I didn't win the Biletnikoff, but I can't gripe."

Warrick found himself in an uncharacteristic mood before the game. "I've never been so focused in my life," he said. "I asked God to let me have the best game I ever had in my life. . . . And I think he did that."

Warrick got the scoring started when he caught a 64-yard touchdown pass from Weinke. His punt return for a touchdown put FSU ahead, 28-7. His two-point conversion catch gave the Seminoles a 36-29 lead after they were trailing 29-28. "I just wanted to do what I've been doing all season," Warrick said, "which is make plays."

Inevitably, the conversation turned back to his travails of October, and what he learned. Warrick told the story of thinking his mother was going to whip him when she arrived in Tallahassee. And he vowed not to disappoint youngsters who might consider him a role model. Then, it seemed to hit Warrick that a season that once was so filled with controversy and questions about his future had just ended with him being the centerpiece of an undefeated team that had just won a championship.

"I bounced back," he said beaming. "I went out as a champion. We've been through so much. There's nothing like a national championship trophy, and having a national championship ring on your finger."