Virginia's football team has been nickel-and-dimed into mediocrity by a combination of bizarre circumstances. They range from the fact that just four starters returned on defense, to the lousy weather that repeatedly rained out practice.
This was to be a season in which Virginia consolidated its position as a fast-growing program with a second consecutive postseason appearance. Despite Coach George Welsh's statement that all he wanted was six victories, the Cavaliers were expected at least to duplicate last year's 8-2-2 record and Peach Bowl triumph over Purdue.
Instead, the Cavaliers are 6-4 overall, 4-2 in the mediocre Atlantic Coast Conference. An upset over Maryland (7-3, 5-0) Friday at College Park might get them to the Aloha Bowl, but then again, it might not.
"People got carried away," Welsh said. "But I knew what our problems were. A win over Maryland at this point would still make a pretty good season for us."
It is a season, however, that is finishing with a flourish of controversy. Barry Word rushed for 1,224 yards and was named the ACC's player of the year on Tuesday, but he also was suspended from school last week for not fufilling the terms of his academic probation and will not play against Maryland. Don Majkowski has been a good option quarterback, but hasn't developed the passing game and was suspended for one game two weeks ago for drinking a beer in public.
Majkowski will start against Maryland, Welsh announced yesterday, although reserve Scott Secules also will play. Word won't be back, however, and it's almost a fitting finish to a season in which the Cavaliers lost to Navy, Virginia Tech, Clemson and North Carolina State, all underdogs. Win or lose against Maryland, the Cavaliers are still trying to figure out the puzzle of this season.
"The ifs, ands or buts all added up," Secules said.
Defensively, the Cavaliers' problems probably came down to the loss of their entire defensive line and secondary. Offensively, however, they have been a mystery. Injuries may have played a large role in their troubles, particularly in their inconsistency. Word was the only consistent weapon as Majkowski completed only 49 percent of his passes.
They began the season with the loss of flanker John Ford, the ACC's rookie of the year last season, who developed calcium deposits on his knee and was finally redshirted. Senior fullback and team captain Antonio Rice was lost to a dislocated shoulder. Tailback Howard Petty, who will start in place of Word, has had sore knees and thigh bruises all season. The Cavaliers got yet another blow yesterday when they determined that center Harold Garren will be out with a sprained ankle, to be replaced by reserve guard Steve Karriker.
"Some years it comes together," Welsh said. "Last year, we didn't have the injuries, we had a week off at the right time to heal, things like that.
"This year, we even had a lot of rain; it cut down on our practice time. None of those things are excuses, but you never know how things like that affect you."
The Cavaliers sometimes lost with an astonishing lack of inspiration, as they did to Virginia Tech and Navy. But they also have won under the most adverse circumstances, as they did two weeks ago over North Carolina, 24-22, without Majkowski.
"This team is very difficult to understand emotionally," said all-America offensive tackle Jim Dombrowski. "We've been up and down one week to the next. There has been a lack of consistently high emotion. It's been very hard to determine."
The Cavaliers have been a good first-half team that has been unable to play well in the second half. They have scored 155 points before halftime, 86 points after halftime. They have allowed 83 points in first halves, 101 in the second.
"We let them off the hook," Rice said. "We lacked the killer instinct. All the little things added up. They'll kill you every time."
Virginia's success despite adversity gives it hope for the Maryland game, though the loss of Word may be too much to overcome. Virginia has been primarily a rushing team, and Word had been an unexpected and badly needed source of yards in light of the struggling passing game.
"I'm hoping the way we responded to Donnie is the way we'll respond to losing Barry," Dombrowski said. "We have to be thick-skinned."
Petty, a junior from Annapolis, started last year and has experience. Although he has been just adequate at relieving Word after losing the starting job to him, with 401 yards, he has also been hampered by nagging injuries. But he is finally healthy and could be a different runner starting in his home state before a national TV audience.
"As far as I'm concerned, it's just another game," he said. "If I let it, it could turn into a big deal. I feel I'm in midseason form, like I'm in my prime."
The Cavaliers, however, now are faced with some inexperience and lack of depth in the backfield. Freshman Kevin Morgan has started occasionally at fullback, where he has gained 362 yards, but Petty had been moved there last week for North Carolina.
Now Petty goes back to tailback, and the options beyond those two are a group of third-stringers.
"We lost our fastest back and our most productive runner," Welsh said. "I think we can overcome that, though, with Petty and Morgan. The key concern is if someone gets hurt. I have my fingers crossed about that."