Virginia played with a resolve that was perfectly brutish today and beat 12th-ranked West Virginia, 27-7, before 56,451 near-mutinous fans at Mountaineer Field.
The way Virginia Coach George Welsh figured it, scratching his head moments after this minor miracle, his players just "keep doing it and doing it better, week after week. I don't know how we keep doing it, but we do. And I love it."
There was much to love today in the Cavaliers' performance, in which fullback Steve Morse and tailback Howard Petty raced for 141 yards and 101 yards, respectively. Morse's 51-yard touchdown run helped break open the game in the third quarter.
The Virginia defense, led by the play of strong safety Lester Lyles and tackle Tom Kilgannon, was so intimidating that it had the Mountaineers' running backs hunkering down in postures of fear and loathing as they approached the front line. West Virginia made only three first downs in the second half, all in the final four minutes.
Sober and humble as ever, Welsh found his share of reasons for the win, none of which drew attention to his perfect game plan. He said, "It was tough for them, coming off big, emotional wins against Boston College and Penn State. That helped us, there's no doubt. Maybe the timing was just right."
Timing, as in historical perspective, owns a new and special definition for Virginia loyalists this day. The Cavaliers (6-1-1) are unbeaten in their last seven games and, suddenly, talk of a bowl appearance seems grounded in reality. Scouts from the Sugar, Fiesta, Gator, Citrus and Peach bowls had come to court West Virginia and get a gratuitous look at the Cavaliers.
Phil Motta, who represents the Fiesta Bowl and spoke for the astonished bunch, said, "We came to see West Virginia, but saw only Virginia, pounding over everybody. Who ever thought Virginia? I'm confused. This is so weird."
What was not weird, to the Virginia players at least, was their command of the contest. West Virginia (7-2) had won the last six games in the series and 21 of its last 23 at home. Visibly distraught over the loss, Don Nehlen, the Mountaineers' coach, had an interesting way of viewing the context.
"I have preached and preached and preached that when you think you're good, you get knocked off. Our players had the idea that all they would have to do is show up and they would win the football game. You saw the result of that kind of thinking this afternoon. Virginia came to play and we didn't . . . We have some soul-searching to do in the next two weeks."
From the outset, Virginia owned the line of scrimmage and used that authority to control the tempo of the game. With 23 seconds left in the first quarter, Cavaliers quarterback Don Majkowski threw a 17-yard scoring pass to tight end Geno Zimmerlink, who had found and manipulated a crease in the defensive coverage and was alone in the end zone.
A well executed play-action fake set up the scoring reception, and kicker Kenny Stadlin, who had field goals of 40 and 34 yards, made the extra point to make it 7-0.
Majkowski, who completed only three of 16 passes for 50 yards, explained his difficulty throwing by running a finger over the plum-red knot on his right hand. His offense gained 399 yards compared to the 244 by West Virginia, and with the rushing game blowing across the turf like a dam break, a less-than-sparkling passing performance needed no excuse. Virginia also had possession of the ball about 10 minutes more than West Virginia, only five short of a complete quarter.
"They weren't the same team we saw on the films all week," Majkowski said. "You could feel it from the very beginning, and see it in how they looked you in the eyes. They were very flat emotionally and we came prepared to get things done. I know we surprised a lot of people, but what feels good is knowing that we're getting better. Now we've got three big ACC games left and a conference championship to shoot for."
West Virginia blew opportunities to score early when all-America kicker Paul Woodside was wide on attempts from 58 and 37 yards. Woodside drew a standing ovation every time he approached the kicking tee, but he was outshined on all counts by Stadlin, whose first field goal covered 40 yards and came with 5:53 left in the half.
In all probability, the only superior performance by a West Virginian came from punter Steve Superick, who kicked eight times for a 48.9 average. His effort was not enough to keep the Cavaliers in the hole, however.
After Superick had let sail a 51-yarder, the Virginia offense ambled onto the field with a finely honed objective in mind and proceeded to bully the West Virginia defense. The offensive line, anchored by strong-arms Bob Olderman and Jim Dombrowski on the left side, exploded on every snap and drove their opponents into goofy crouches. Said Majkowski, "The line blew everybody everywhere. It's time somebody takes a good, long look at how well those guys are playing."
Morse, breaking through a terrific hole off guard, ran 51 yards and dove away from the chase of Rich Rodriguez, the free safety who had followed in fast pursuit after Morse cleared the left corner. Morse's leap into the end zone was no more graceful than a frog jump, but it covered five yards and gave the Cavaliers a comfortable lead with 4:16 left in the third quarter. Stadlin's kick gave Virginia a 17-0 lead.
Antonio Rice, the fullback from McKinley Tech in the District who gained 70 yards in a secondary role, scored the last touchdown for Virginia when he raced 22 yards across open pasture. The score, at 4:22 in the fourth quarter, caused a mass exodus in the bleacher seats. Stadlin made the extra point, giving West Virginia cause to cringe in embarrassment. The score was 27-0.
West Virginia finally scored with 3:44 to play when backup quarterback Tony Reda, replacing the ineffective Kevin White, threw a 44-yard touchdown pass to flanker Gary Mullen.
Lyles, exuberant after the win, said, "We'll celebrate a little bit, but not too much. We have three big conference games left to play (N.C. State, North Carolina and Maryland) and that's more than enough."