Virginia's defense was unable to cope with West Virginia quarterback Oliver Luck, particularly on third down, and the Mountaineers defeated the favored but error-prone Cavaliers, 32-18, today at steamy Scott Stadium.
The Cavalier secondary was embarrassed throughout the first half by the Mountaineers' passing combination of Luck to Darrell Miller. Luck, one of the nation's top passers, completed nine of 13 passes for 132 yards in the first half, setting up three short rushing touchdowns, as West Virginia led, 21-3, at halftime.
Miller, a 6-foot-3, 205-pound receiver, befuddled Virginia all afternoon. He caught eight passes for 132 yards, seven receptions coming in the first half before he left the game with leg cramps.
In a stark contrast, Todd Kirtley, Virginia's senior quarterback, completed just eight of 26 passes -- many were dropped by his receivers -- and was removed from the game after being sacked hard in the end zone for a safety in the fourth quarter.
"I sincerely felt we went into the game ready to play and could beat West Virginia," said Cavalier Coach Dick Bestwick. "But when you throw it and catch it you win. And when you don't throw it and catch it you don't."
Bestwick's second-team quarterback, junior Gordie Whitehead, threw a three-yard touchdown pass to tight end Kevin Riccio and a two-point conversion pass to Mark Sanford with two seconds remaining. He completed seven of 10 passes during the 79-yard drive.
But by the time Whitehead entered the game, about half the 34,007 fans had left to find other recreation on this 90-degree afternoon.
Virginia made the game interesting at the beginning of the third quarter when Kirtley, from Robinson High School in Fairfax, threw a 13-yard touchdown pass to Riccio, cutting the margin to 21-10. But Luck moved West Virginia close enough for Iranian place-kicker Murat Tercan to make second-half field goals of 31, 46 and 33 yards.
Virginia, which rushed three men much of the first half, never pressured Luck. "We'll have to look at the people on the front line and see if we can get any better from them," Bestwick said.
With six and seven seconds to throw on any down, Miller, whom Kirtley described as a "superb, disciplined pass route runner," got open on nearly every play, sometimes against double coverage. Especially on third down.
"We'd contain him for two downs and then they'd complete the third-down pass every time," said sophomore cornerback Darryl Reaves.
Midway through the third quarter, West Virginia had converted eight of 10 third-down plays. Five were on pass completions and four of those were receptions by Miller.
"It was scary back there," said Reaves. "Luck definitely had too much time to throw. They were picking on me. They must have run four of those third-down plays in my direction. They were trying to bait me."
West Virginia didn't even need a third-down conversion on its first series. After Steve Newberry returned a low, line-drive punt 42 yards to the Virginia 10, tailback Curlin Beck ran seven yards, then three for the touchdown and a 7-0 Moutaineer lead. "That first punt (by Jody McKown) really killed us," Bestwick said. "I hope that will be his worst performance of the year."
Virginia stalled on its first possession when three receivers dropped accurate passes from Kirtley. The Cavaliers finally used a 27-yard pass interference penalty to move into position for Wayne Morrison's 38-yard field goal.
But on West Virginia's ensuing possession, fullback Damon Beasley, a fifth-stringer at the beginning of fall practice, ran over right tackle 32 yards to the Cavalier 22 on third and two. Four plays later, Dane Conwell, who has a bruised knee, scored from two yards to give West Virginia a 14-3 lead.
On West Virginia's next series, Luck kept a 13-play, 70-yard touchdown drive alive by completing a third-and-three pass for 17 yards to Miller, a third-and-nine, 16-yard pass to Miller, and a short third-and-five pass to Mark Raugh. Eldridge Dixon, who also has a bruised knee, ran one yard for the touchdown and a 21-3 lead.
But the most important third-down conversion of the game came with nearly 10 minutes remaining in the third quarter, after Virginia had scored. Cavalier safety Pat Chester had broken up a Luck pass attempt and defensive end Mike Budd had stopped Beck for a three-yard loss at the West Virginia 28. Surely the momentum would swing toward Virginia if the defense could stop a third-and-13 play.
But Luck, with lots of time, found Miller in his usual spot -- over the middle between the linebackers and the secondary -- for a 24-yard gain that set up a field goal.