Either the University of Virginia has the swiftest little offense in the history of the school or the Virginia Military Institute simply was playing the foil once again. It was probably a combination of both tonight as the Cavaliers defeated a Keydet team that keeps coming back despite scores like this, 40-15.

Virginia, coming off its first bowl appearance, turned five fumbles by VMI into 27 points before 37,500 at suddenly fashionable Scott Stadium to open what it fervently hopes will be its finest season in its brief tenure in college football's upper echelons. Tailback Howard Petty scored on runs of three and one yards, tailback Barry Word scored on a five-yard run and fullback Keith Vanderbeek had a four-yard touchdown run with 1:53 remaining after the fifth fumble. The Cavaliers now lead the series, 53-23-3.

In addition, senior place kicker Kenny Stadlin tied a school record with four field goals in five attempts, including a 42-yarder. He also set the record for most kicking points in a game, with 16. His only miss was a 47-yarder in the third quarter.

It should be noted that all this came against a team that was far from inept. The Keydets, who were making their debut under first-time Coach Eddie Williamson, mustered a three-yard touchdown from tailback Trent Bridges and a scoring pass from quarterback Al Comer to tight end Steve Pancham. Take away the 27 points for turnovers, and what is left is an intriguing contest.

"It wasn't very pretty," Virginia Coach George Welsh said. "It's called winning ugly or something. It's a good thing they turned the ball over, or it's a close game."

Despite the lopsided score, VMI displayed an offense with some flair and more than a few athletes. It was a good test for Virginia, which had been fretting over a defense with only four starters returning. The result was inconsistency that allowed Comer to complete 19 of 30 passes for 210 yards despite his two fumbles, and Bridges, who gave up a fumble, to rush for 68 yards on 19 carries.

But Virginia's pride-and-joy offense, led by quarterback Don Majkowski and a running game that was ranked 17th in the nation last year, did what was expected of it against a defense that also has only four starters returning. Word gained 136 yards on 17 carries, Petty gained 65 yards on 19 carries and Majkowski completed 13 of 25 passes for 125 yards.

The Cavaliers racked up 401 yards in total offense, and although much of that had to be attributed to turnovers, it was nevertheless encouraging in light of the absence of three valued starters sidelined by injuries in the preseason. Fullback Antonio Rice was out because of a dislocated shoulder, flanker John Ford had a torn tendon in his knee and offensive guard Mike Battle had a strained neck, all of which caused the Cavaliers concern.

"We played like I thought we'd play," Welsh said, "the way we played in practice, lack of cohesion, missed assignments. I'm not complaining too much. We just played like I thought we would."

The Keydets' loss was the sixth straight to the Cavaliers, and they have been outscored, 182-48, in that span. But a Division I-AA team that was 1-9 last year could take some solace in making things interesting in the final quarter.

They put together a lengthy scoring drive with 12:04 remaining, going 80 yards in 14 plays and 4:37. The key play came on fourth and 10 at the Virginia 33, when Comer threw a strike to split end Keith Washington for 15 yards. One play later, Comer completed a quick out to tight end Steve Pancham, who broke two tackles and wrestled his way into the end zone. Bridges dove over for the two-point conversion to close the gap to 30-15.

The blowout suddenly looked like it might become a game when Petty fumbled less than a minute later on second and five at his 19 and Mark Black recovered for the Keydets at the Cavalier 24. Suddenly, a close finish wasn't unthinkable.

Unless, of course, you considered VMI's penchant for fumbling. On the next play, Comer was sacked by tackle Rayotis Perkins and lost the ball. Nose guard Scott Matheson recovered his second fumble of the night at the Virginia 29. Virginia turned it into Stadlin's fourth field goal, a 25-yarder.

Comer gave up the fifth fumble with 6:14 remaining when he was sacked by tackle Billy Keys, and linebacker Charles McDaniel recovered on the Virginia 48. Ten plays later, on first and goal at the four, Vanderbeek swept the right side for the final score.

"We came up here thinking we had a chance, as bizarre and crazy as that may sound," said Williamson, formerly an offensive line coach at Georgia and Duke. "I'm not happy to have this behind us, because we lost. One thing that excited me was when we recovered that fumble at their 30. The players realized that we were just a couple of touchdowns and two-point conversions away, and that's the way they were talking on the sidelines."

VMI committed its third fumble on the opening kickoff of the second half when flanker James Wright lost the ball on his 21 and reserve fullback Vincent Toye recovered for the Cavaliers. Virginia immediately turned it into its third touchdown on a drive that belonged exclusively to Word, who picked up eight yards on a sweep, eight more off tackle, and swept into the end zone from the five.

The Cavaliers turned two fumbles by VMI into 10 points in the first half and punted just twice, scoring on five of seven possessions in taking a 23-7 lead at intermission. Petty, the leading returning rusher with 811 yards last season, scored twice in the first quarter on identical sweeps, the second a one-yard touchdown that resulted from Bridges' fumble on VMI's opening possession.

Stadlin made field goals of 23, 27 and 42 yards in the half.