Virginia clinched its second winning football season in 27 years the hard way today, stopping arch rival Virginia Tech's two-point conversion pass with three seconds to play to preserve a 20-18 victory.
Tech quarterback Steve Casey rolled to his left, trying for the two points to tie the game. He was aiming for fullback Tony Blackmon deep in the end zone, but Blackmon slipped on the rain-slicked AstroTurf and the pass fell incomplete.
Surprisingly, there was little jubilation in the Virginia locker room afterward, mostly because the Cavaliers almost lost a 17-0 halftime lead.
When Coach Dick Bestwick walked into the locker room the saw gloom after Virginia's sixth victory in nine starts this season.
"This is the improvement I can see," Bestwick told the quiet group. "It's just like you lost a game. Everybody should be happy."
Certainly the Virginia rooters in the Scott Stadium record crowd of 38,847 were delighted, even though by the nail-biting end, many had forgotten defensive back Bryan Shumock's 89-yard touchdown run. Shumock picked up a fumble in the first quarter, then turned in the longest scoring run ever in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
That gave Virginia a 14-0 lead in the final minute of the period and all the Wahoos would get the rest of the day would be 44- and 35-yard field goals by Wayne Morrison, giving him nine this season, a Cavalier record.
But, at the end, after Tech quarterback Casey completed his 18th pass of the game, to wingback Sidney Snell for a two-yard touchdown, it remained for the Cavs to win a close game, something they had not done this season.
They did today, when Casey's final pass hit the ground.
"He (Blackmon) was open to the right, but the covered," Casey recalled. "So I threw back to his left, and when he cut, he slipped."
"The pass was there," Blackmon said.
"We got lucky," said Shumock, Virginia's starting quarterback as a freshman but a star defender now as a junior.
Tech kicker Dennis Laury is 19 of 21 on conversions this season. But the Gobblers tried and failed for two-point conversions after each of their touchdowns -- a 25-yard Casey-to-Snell pass and a 10 yard run by Cyrus Lawrence. Conversion runs failed each time, first by Casey, then by Lawrence.
"I wanted to take the pressure off by going for two after the first touchdown," Bill Dooley, the Tech coach, explained after VPI dropped to 4-5.
Today's affair was as intense as most of the games in this series that dates back to 1895. But it was not well played, partly because of the wet field.
In the first quarter, Tech twice drove to the Virginia 15-yard line and still trailed, 14-0.
The first time, Cav defenders sacked casey for a 10-yard loss and dropped Lawrence for minus three, setting up a fake field goal the fizzled when Virginia end Steve Potter hit holder Mike Zouzalik's arm and his pass fell to the ground.
The cavs then drove 71 yards in eight plays to take a 7-0 lead, fullback Tommy Vigorito breaking three tackles in scoring from nine yards out. Quarterback Todd Kirtley completed two big passes in the drive.
But Tech came right back. After a clipping penalty made the Hokies start from their nine, they moved steadily and, 14 plays later, had a first down on the Virginia 15.
On a simple tailback dive off tackle, linebacker Jim Hyson tackled Lawrence around the waist and the ball shot out of the freshman's grip and into Shumock's. He stepped out of one tackle, then outran Casey to the end zone.
"I was just standing there and the ball came at me," Shumock said. "That's the way it's supposed to happen, isn't it? That's the way it's drawn on the blackboard. I'd never scored a touchdown here in my life. I didn't think I'd make it this time. I was dying. It hit me about the 15-yard line. I thought I hit a brick wall."
That gave Virginia a 14-0 lead with 57 seconds left in the first quarter. Two series later, the Cavs committed the first of their three turnovers. Greg Taylor, hit by VPI cornerback Jerome Pannell at the Tech goal line, fumbled out of the end zone, for a touchback.
"It was close," Bestwick said, "a judgement call."
"I thought I had broken the plane," Taylor said. "A couple of other players told me I had, too."
Morrison's 44-yard field goal came on the next series and Virginia took a 17-0 lead into the locker room at halftime.
Morrison got his kicks off without his normal shoe, because a team manager forgot it, drawing Bestwick's only postgame criticism.
Morrison's short boot on the second-half kickoff helped Tech to excellent field position and the Hokies drove 62 yards in nine plays, with Snell making an acrobatic catch for the touchdown.
Then Virgnina's offense self-destructed.
"We came out and we looked like we were flat," said Taylor, who lost two fumbles. "We weren't executing and we were making stupid penalties. We know we didn't play that well. It shouldn't have been that close."
But it was. Kirtley's only interception, by Matt Mead on a tipped pass, gave Tech possession at Virginia's 35 early in the fourth quarter. It took Tech only six plays for Lawrence to score. That made it 17-12.
Virginia moved a little better its next possession, until it faced a fourth down at the Tech 22. But Mike Kovac stopped Virorito's line plunge for no gain and Tech took over.
Four plays later, Virginia's Bobby Call stepped in front of Snell and intercepted the ball, returning it 16 yards to the Tech 20. Morrison kicked his 35-yarder on fourth down and that set up Tech's final drive.
Tech moved steadily -- its longest gain was 16 yards -- and used all three timeouts. On fourth and seven at the Virginia 17, Casey lobbed a prayer pass and Snell caught the ball at the two.
Nine seconds remained. Virginia, surprisingly, called time.
"We had to get our goal-line defense in the game," Bestwick explained. "They were lined up on the ball. They would have gotten the snap off and we would have been disorganized.".
After the timeout, Casey rolled left and completed the touchdown pass to the diving Snell.
"I knew it was going to be a long 30 minutes when the (the manager) didn't have the shoe," Bestwick said. "But I'm elated with victory, no matter how it comes." He should have been. Virginia's triumph clinched its first winning season since 1968. Bestwisk's teams had won a total of only five games his three previous seasons.