A Virginia backfield made up largely of spare parts overcame trouble and rushed against Maryland yesterday when it was least expected to, but the Cavaliers failed to solve a larger problem and it proved to be their undoing: the passing game.
The Cavaliers probably had no right to come as close to the Terrapins as they did in the 33-21 loss, considering some of the events of the last two weeks.
First of all, Virginia was without tailback Barry Word, the Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year, who was declared ineligible for not fulfilling the terms of his academic probation. Second, quarterback Don Majkowski played his first game in three weeks after being suspended for one game by Coach George Welsh for drinking a beer in public.
But Virginia, which ended its season 6-5, accomplished something only one other team had done against the Terrapins, and did it doubly. Tailback Howard Petty, playing in place of Word, rushed for 124 yards and two touchdowns on 24 carries. Redshirt freshman fullback Kevin Morgan rushed for 129 yards on 24 carries.
Maryland had given up more than 100 yards to only one back this season: Clemson's Kenny Flowers, who had 127 two weeks ago. The Terrapins had given up just five rushing touchdowns all season. Yesterday they gave up three: two by Petty and one by Majkowski.
That the rush would keep Virginia in the game was an unlikely prospect earlier in the week. The Cavaliers were in such severe straits in the backfield that Morgan was listed as backup tailback to Petty. The loss of Word, who had gained 1,224 yards in 10 games, was a potentially devastating blow.
"You never know," Welsh said. "He's still our best back. Maybe if he had been there, some of the runs would have been a little longer. Then again, maybe not."
Petty, a junior from Annapolis who had started last year, has been plagued all season by nagging injuries that ranged from aggravated scar tissue in his knee, to a sore ankle, to a deep thigh bruise. He had lost the starting job to Word midway through the season and had gained just 401 yards before yesterday. Morgan, moved to fullback from reserve tailback early in the season, had gained only 362.
"With Barry out, it meant if they stopped us it was because either the offensive line was soft or the other backs weren't as good," Morgan said. "That's not true. Howard had been the starter the last couple of years."
Ultimately, however, Virginia's offense lacked the big play capability that Word had provided, and which the passing game was not able to muster all year. Majkowski completed just seven of 21 passes against the Terrapins. He was 0-4 in the first half and his first completion didn't come until 11:20 was left in the third quarter. It came on Virginia's second scoring drive, which ended with Petty's four-yard run.
Majkowski had completed just 49 percent of his passes all season and thrown for seven touchdowns to a revolving corps of receivers that changed constantly because of injuries. He also had only fair pass protection.
"The pass just didn't work all year," Virginia Coach George Welsh said. "Our quarterback got hit too much. If we're going to be any good in the future, we've got to have a better passing game.
"Our offense is just not geared to score all those points. We have trouble making the big plays. They made them. We needed the long drives."
Majkowski was under a heavy rush all day, and was sacked twice for 17 yards. He sprained his toe on the second series of the first quarter, limiting his mobility for the rest of the game and requiring crutches afterwards.
"I just didn't have enough time," he said. "I couldn't plant my feet. I couldn't look down field. There were guys in my face all the time."
Another factor may have been Majkowski's suspension, which kept him out of Virginia's 24-22 victory over North Carolina. With a week off prior to the Maryland game, it meant he had not played since the Cavaliers' 23-22 loss to North Carolina State on Nov. 10.
" . . . He had to be a little rusty," said Welsh.
One good outcome of the game for Virginia was that it showed promise for the backfield's future without Word. Petty and Morgan both will return to tailback. Senior Antonio Rice of Washington, redshirted because of injuries, returns for a fifth year at fullback.
"The pressure built day by day," Petty said. I tried not to let it bother me. But I also thought it was the best situation in a way, to try to finish strong and get some momentum for next year."