BIRMINGHAM, DEC. 23 -- For a college football player, what could be better than playing in, and winning, a bowl game?
Playing in, and winning, a bowl game and then going back to the hotel and watching it on television, that's what.
Which is precisely what many Virginia Cavaliers did here Tuesday night. First, they defeated Brigham Young, 22-16, in the All American Bowl at Legion Field. Then, thanks to a local television station, they were given the perfect springboard to a night of postgame merriment -- a tape-delay broadcast of the game.
"It looked even better on TV," junior wide receiver John Ford said this morning as he boarded an airplane at Birmingham Municipal Airport with an enormous, seemingly permanent grin on his face.
Maybe it was more fun to watch the game knowing how it would turn out.
Virginia (8-4) led, 14-3, at halftime even though the Cougars (9-4) had driven to the Cavaliers 3, 33 and 30 on their first three possessions. The Cavaliers went into the fourth quarter with a 14-9 lead even though, during the third quarter, Brigham Young possessed the ball for 12:54, ran 27 plays, gained 147 yards and twice had first-and-goal situations. Their only bright spot in the quarter was that the Cougars had to use two of their three timeouts.
Ford's 22-yard touchdown reception from fifth-year senior quarterback Scott Secules (a Chantilly High School graduate who completed 10 of 19 passes for 162 yards and was named the game's most valuable player) and Secules' two-point conversion pass off a faked extra-point attempt with 11:17 left in the contest made the score 22-9.
But, led by sophomore quarterback Sean Covey -- who completed 37 of an All American Bowl-record 61 passes (10 more than Vanderbilt's Whit Taylor attempted in 1982) for 394 yards -- the Cougars rallied. They closed to within 22-16 with 7:07 to play on a one-yard touchdown pass to fullback Fred Whittingham that concluded their third possession of the half -- a 12-play, 76-yard drive.
On their fourth possession, which began after three plays and a punt by Virginia, the Cougars immediately lost five yards on a penalty. On third and six, a pass from Covey to junior tight end Darren Handley -- whose drop in the end zone on Brigham Young's first possession of the game forced the Cougars to kick a 20-yard field goal -- gained five. On fourth down, with 3:50 remaining, Covey faked a handoff going left, then sprinted right on a naked bootleg Covey said was designed for a pass/throw option.
Without any open receivers and senior defensive end Sean Scott having apparently lost containment because of the play fake, Covey took off toward what seemed a certain first down. But Scott, a two-year co-captain, ran "probably the fastest 30 yards of my life" and dragged Covey down from behind. A controversial spot by the officials left the Cougars inches short of the first down.
With Brigham Young reluctant to use its final timeout, Virginia running backs Kevin Morgan (10 carries, 82 yards) and McNamara graduate Durwin Greggs grounded out a first down and took 2:32 off the clock before Mark Inderlied missed a 42-yard field-goal attempt. Starting from his 25 with 1:18 left, Covey then threw four incompletions under heavy pass rushes.
In slow motion, Scott's play got better each time it was shown. The play fake had left him flat-footed, upfield and well behind Covey.
"I had been expecting that play the whole game because in the past they had used it with a lot of success in clutch situations. But for some reason it wasn't on my mind right then, until I saw the fake," Scott said. "I took a flatter pursuit angle than usual and I knew I was going to hit him on the line of scrimmage. I have no idea of where we hit in relation to the marker, but as soon as I saw the spot, I knew he was short."
It was not the only time the Cougars were short Tuesday night, despite compiling 489 yards total offense and getting 10 receptions for 188 of those yards from senior wide receiver David Miles.
"We kept ourselves out of the end zone," said Brigham Young Coach LaVell Edwards, whose team also allowed Virginia to rush for 187 yards on 43 attempts. "We dropped a touchdown pass; we got to the 2-yard line and didn't score; we missed two field goals, we did it all."
The win means much more to Virginia's growing program, which was making just its second bowl appearance ever, than it would have to the Cougars' established one, which was making its 10th consecutive bowl appearance.
"This win gives us a lot of emotion going into next year," said junior linebacker Jeff Lageman, a graduate of Park View High School, who is one of 16 starters eligible to return next year -- nine on defense. "We had a good recruiting year after the Peach Bowl. That game was part of the reason I came here."
"I said to the staff before the game that no matter what happened this was a very good experience for this young team," said Virginia Coach George Welsh, whose 31st wedding anniversary was Tuesday. "Hopefully, we won't have to start all over again next year. Hopefully, this will help us."
Said redshirt freshman cornerback Keith McMeans: "Virginia football is really looking up."