Virginia's players talked all week about how they wanted to begin a new football tradition at their school. With Monday's 27-24 victory over Purdue in the Peach Bowl here, they may have done just that.
Barry Word, Virginia's junior tailback, had a hard time identifying with the fact that his team lost nine of 11 games just two years ago, or that it started this season by losing to Clemson, 55-0.
"Today, I don't even remember the 2-9 season," Word said. "That's ancient history. That was another Virginia football program. Just look at all the people (approximately 12,000) who came down here to support us. It feels like the great basketball years with Ralph Sampson."
It may take a while before Coach George Welsh and his Cavaliers reach the national level Sampson and the Virginia basketball team did in the early '80s.
But it looks as if the football program is well on its way to shedding an embarrassing tradition of failure that began in 1888, when Virginia barely beat Episcopal High School, and continued until this first bowl appearance.
Welsh said he thought for a time Monday that it was all slipping away, when Virginia (8-2-2) allowed Purdue's Jim Everett to throw three touchdown passes in the first half as the Boilermakers took a 24-10 lead.
But Virginia's defense held Purdue scoreless the second half, the offense got two touchdowns and Kenny Stadlin kicked a 22-yard field goal with seven minutes left. Then, the defense played well enough the next drive -- getting an interception from cornerback Ray Daly -- to keep the second-guessers from coming after Welsh.
Welsh made the decision to go for the field goal instead of a touchdown on fourth and six inches. He also intentionally took a delay-of-game penalty for five yards to give Stadlin a better shot. When asked about those decisions, Welsh said, "When you you get a chance to go ahead, you've got to go ahead and make them beat you. I think there are some arguments both ways. I think that even if you don't make it, you've got them backed up."
Welsh's strategies and the performance of the defense allowed Virginia to win its eighth game in a season for the first time since 1952.
"I think the eighth win, coming the way it did with the bowl game, on national television, and coming back in the second half, it gives a good feeling," Welsh said. "I'm really proud of our football team."
Welsh also said he thinks the team is in good shape for continuing its progress next season. Virginia, runner-up to Maryland in the Atlantic Coast Conference, will return nine offensive players who have started at least occasionally, and 17 of the top 22 offensive players.
Four of the five top skill-position players return: quarterback Don Majkowski, tailbacks Howard Petty and Word, and wide receiver John Ford. Only fullback Steve Morse is a senior, and he should be replaced adequately by Antonio Rice, a former starter.
Defense, however, is a different story. Virginia, for the last 10 games of the season, had the best defense in the ACC. But the Cavaliers will lose seven of 11 starters, including their entire secondary.
One of the departing seniors, tackle Ron Mattes, looked back on the season and said, "We were a dark horse this year. Not many people expected us to go this far and accomplish this much. But with winning this bowl game, and with the people we have coming back, we should be able to stay in the top two in the ACC."