Coach George Welsh is not losing sleep over the 2-7 record of Virginia's football team. To the contrary: he turned off the Cavaliers' exciting double-overtime basketball victory over the Soviet national team Wednesday night because he could not stay awake.
Most of Welsh's waking hours are being devoted to planning an upset of Maryland and the Atlantic Coast Conference's other first-year coach, Bobby Ross. Virginia has not beaten the 19th-ranked Terrapins since 1971 and would appear to have little chance here Saturday, but Welsh will not concede defeat.
"I think we have a good chance against Maryland," Welsh said today, leaning back in his office chair, feet on the desk, looking more relaxed than most coaches whose teams are 2-7. "We'll have to be peaked, of course, and we can't make mistakes the way we did against North Carolina (a 27-14 defeat).
"We dropped the center snap four times, for reasons I can't explain, and offensively we just made too many mistakes. But our defense did a good job against a good offensive football team. We haven't been hurt as much, we've been able to start basically the same team the last three or four weeks, and I think we're coming on."
A month ago there was no optimism--or reason for any. After close losses to Navy and James Madison, the Cavaliers were routed by Duke. Then, following a heart-breaking 16-13 defeat by North Carolina State, Virginia was embarrassed by Clemson, 48-0.
"When Clemson crushed us, it was really dark that night," Welsh said. "We had played well against Navy, but the next four games we were a bad football team. Even though the N.C. State game was close, it was only because they were as bad as we were.
"I think something happened to this football team after Navy. It was only one loss, but it really affected a lot of players, maybe because they'd been losing so long and were expecting a sudden change. When James Madison beat us, it was a psychological blow. We couldn't quite come out of it.
"The week off after Clemson was a godsend. We'd been getting hurt too much and with no practice for three days, we were able to recover, both physically and mentally . . . We spent three days on fundamentals and re-emphasized what we wanted to do."
The result was victories over Wake Forest and VMI, followed by close losses to Georgia Tech, in which the offense looked good, and to North Carolina, in which the defense excelled. Welsh figures if both units come through Saturday, the 10-game losing streak to Maryland might end.
Regardless of the last two results, against Maryland and Virginia Tech, Welsh thinks the program is moving forward. Virginia was 1-10 last year.
"I think we're close," he said. "We've been a better football team the second half and we're showing some progress, although I had hoped for better results. Maybe it takes a year to get our system across, which could add up to three or four more wins. We've lost all the close games except Wake Forest, and that wasn't close until the end.
"But some of our best athletes are freshmen and sophomores who hadn't played, and we used them. It cost us some close games, but they gained experience that is going to help us. We'll have most of our team back, plus some good prospects who haven't played.
"Just compare us to Maryland. They're a junior-senior football team, with a lot of fifth-year guys and fourth-year juniors. You've got to have experience to win football games. That's where we're behind."
Freshman Antonio Rice, from Washington's McKinley High School, is the Cavaliers' leading rusher (704 yards, a 4.1 average). Freshman linebacker Charles McDaniel, from James Monroe High School in Fredericksburg, leads the team in tackles. Freshman Scott Matheson has played capably as the starting nose guard.
And Welsh, even if he can't always stay awake to watch him, is counting on Ralph Sampson to help sign more quality football recruits this winter.
"The basketball team is an asset," Welsh said. "The kids see a guy like Sampson coming here and doing well academically for four years and it really helps. They like to come visit to see him play, too. We have a lot of good games on recruiting weekends this year.
"Last season the North Carolina game was in midweek, the place was packed and there was a lot of enthusiasm. It impressed the recruits and we signed several of them."
Similar enthusiasm for the football program must await a winner. When he was 0-2, Welsh received a sympathetic call from former Maryland coach Jerry Claiborne, still winless at Kentucky. When he was 0-5, he felt like calling for help. Today, on an afternoon dark and dreary, in the tradition of one-time student Edgar Allan Poe, Welsh could see a light at the end of one of college football's longest tunnels.