As long as football is played at James Madison University, no matter what heights the program attains, it is difficult to imagine a more significant victory than today's 21-17 upset of Virginia.
Madison didn't start giving football scholarships until 1979; it was 1980 before it earned Division I-AA status; it never had beaten a Division I-A instate rival.
This game was off the boards, with Virginia fans giving as many as 30 points during pregame tailgating. When these teams last met, Virginia won, 69-9. This was to be party time, a relaxing first victory before 23,524 at Scott Stadium in George Welsh's home debut as coach of the Cavaliers.
Instead, the underdogs came up with the big plays when needed--an 80-yard scoring pass from Jon Roddy to Gary Clark, a 53-yard interception for a touchdown by Mike Thurman, plus two interceptions and two fumble recoveries in the last 10 minutes -- and pulled off the biggest victory in the school's football history.
Roddy scored the go-ahead touchdown on a one-yard quarterback dive over right guard with 6:24 to play. The drive started following the first of two fourth-quarter fumbles by Virginia tailback Quentin Walker. The key play in the 58-yard drive was a pass interference call against Darryl Smith on third and 16 from the Virginia 32. It gave Madison a first down at the 7.
The Cavaliers had three more possessions, but could not avoid their 15th loss in the last 16 games.
At the end, as the final seconds ticked away, the Madison players picked up Coach Challace McMillin and carried him on the field.
"You can't describe the way I feel right now," McMillin said afterward.
Asked if it was his biggest victory ever, McMillin paused, then said, "I guess so."
"Madison's a little bit better team than we gave them credit for," said Welsh, quietly. "I don't think we were overconfident, but I don't think we gave them the respect they deserved."
The winning drive, coming after Antonio Rice's seven-yard run had given Virginia a 17-14 lead early in the fourth quarter, started after Madison linebacker Ron Ziolkowski snatched the ball out of out Walker's hand at the Madison 42.
"When he cut back, his arm swung out," said Ziolkowski, a converted fullback. "I wasn't going for the ball, but all of a sudden, I felt it in my hand, so I just started running."
On the next play, Brian Coe broke off right tackle for 16 yards. On second-and-seven, Roddy picked up 13 yards by cutting up the middle on a keeper to the Virginia 26. On third down, an interception by Pat Chester of a pass intended for Clark was nullified by the interference penalty. Roddy ran up the middle to the one and scored on the next play.
"We felt we could beat them," Roddy said. "But we knew we had to make some big plays. If we hadn't made the big plays, we would have lost."
Madison didn't waste any time making a big play; Roddy teamed up with split end Clark, Madison's career reception leader, on an 80-yard scoring play midway through the first quarter. Clark got behind Chester and outran Darryl Reeves to the end zone on the first play from scrimmage after Wayne Morrison's 33-yard field goal gave Virginia a 3-0 lead.
"We've opened up our offense more this season because of Clark," said Jimmy Prince, offensive backfield coach. "We need to get the ball to Gary. He's as good as anybody we've had here."
Clark, who returned a punt 79 yards for a touchdown in last Saturday's 39-35 victory over Appalachian State, caught three passes for 110 yards.
The next big play came when cornerback Thurman stepped in front of flanker Henry Johnson, intercepted Wayne Schucts' pass and ran 53 yards for a touchdown. Mickey Stinnett's conversion gave the Dukes a 14-3 lead with 2:52 elapsed in the second quarter.
Virginia got its first touchdown on Schucts' one-year sneak, ending a 44-yard drive with 1:55 left in the half. Then, after forcing Madison to punt, the Cavaliers had a chance to take the lead at halftime, but two passes from the 23 failed and Morrison's field-goal attempt was short.
"Having the lead at halftime gave our kids a big lift," McMillin said. "I felt we could win if our defense held up. My main concern was their size. I used a lot of people because I didn't want them to wear us out at the end."