Virginia, that perennial doormat of college football, shut out Virginia Military Institute, 19-0, today with a defense that yielded only three first downs -- none in the final three quarters -- and 51 yards.

The Cavaliers seemed somewhat disappointed. They thought their defense played well enough for a 50-0 rout of an obviously outmanned opponent. The offense lost four fumbles, had two passes intercepted and a punt blocked.

Virginia Coach Dick Bestwick, however, was not one of the complainers.

"Winning and feeling like you look bad sure beats and daylights out of losing and thinking you played well," he said.

The victory that made the Cavaliers 2-1 this season was only Bestwick's seventh in four seasons here. However, it is easy to see that these Cavaliers have turned the corner. Both victories have been shutouts and Virginia has not had two of them this close together since the 1952 season.

Two big plays -- a 72-yard sweep around right end by halfback Greg Taylor on the game's third play and a 56-yard punt return by sophomore Pat Chester midway through the second quarter -- accounted for Virginia's touchdowns.

The Cavaliers, the nation's 10th best rushing team this season, were ahead of their 287-foot per game average with 298. Taylor got 133 on 20 carries and fullback Tommy Vigorito added 120 against NCAA Division I's 10th best rushing defense.

VMI free safety Walt Bellamy had to make 19 tackles, 11 of them unassisted.

That Virginia popped the big play so fast probably had a negative effect on the Cavaliers, Bestwick said.

"After we hit the first big one, the coaching staff and the players alike thought that nothing was successful unless it was a big play. And that can get to you and hurt you."

It had the potential to do so. But VMI (2-1) never capitalized on the few chances it had.

Typical were two plays.

Trailing in the second quarter, 6-0, after his team had made its last first down of this drizzly afternoon, VMI Coach Bob Thalman sent in Craig Jones to attempt a 47-yard field goal.

Jones, a senior, needs only 11 field goals to break Tony Franklin's NCAA career record of 56. He never got a chance to kick this one. Holder Larry Hupertz, the Keydets' starting quarterback, lost his grip on the ball setting it down.

Bestwick said he could not cite a big play as the turning point, candidly adding, "I never felt we would lose the game. We have better people than they do."

But hope springs eternal and, even with VMI trailing, 19-0, late in the third quarter, Thalman still thought the Keydets had a chance when Bob Savage blocked Ford Mays' punt. Without a Virginia player near him, VMI'S Steve McKenna fell on the ball, at the Virginia 11.

"It was a great job blocking the punt," Thalman said. "But the guy (McKenna) should have picked up the ball and run it in. It was just a mistake. What were there? Twelve minutes left?"

Three downs later, the Virginia defense forced tailback Floyd Allen to fumble and free safety Mike Brancati recovered.

"Our defense played just an unbelieveable football game," Bestwick said.

By the time Virginia led, 14-0, VMI had run 10 plays on first down for a net gain of nine yards.

When the Keydets later made a big chunk on first down, twice having second and less than three yards, Virginia did not allow a first down.

Even Chester, a backup free safety, intercepted a pass in the waning minutes. But it was nothing to compare with his first collegiate touchdown, which gave the Wahoos a 14-0 lead after Tod Kirtley ran the quarterback option for a two-point conversion.

Louis Darden punted the ball low and three VMI players watched it roll along the ground. Suddenly, the ball bounced up, toward Chester. One downfield block later by Bryan Shumock, and the 5-foot-9, 185-pound Cambridge, Md., native had a touchdown.

After returning seven punts for 130 yards today, Chester was described by his coach as "maybe the best punt returner in the entire United States. He's got unbelievable balance."