CHARLOTTESVILLE -- You would have thought it was New Year's Day the way the Wahoos carried on. The first goal posts, the ones at the south end, came down with 48 seconds left to play in the game. School officials thought they had prepared for just such a moment: They'd taken motor oil and smeared it all over both sets of uprights. They also had braces, which were supposed to lock the posts in place. Was Virginia confident about ending this streak, or what?
Oil couldn't keep those goal posts in Scott Stadium. Neither could padlocks. The people who run the athletic department at Thomas Jefferson's school will just have to buy new ones this week, because beating Clemson after 35 years of trying demands a special celebration. George Welsh, the unassuming, understated, underappreciated coach of these Cavaliers, tried -- as you knew he would -- to put a lid on this madness. "What am I now, 1-8 against Clemson?" he asked.
Yes. And it makes Virginia 1-29 against Clemson, but oh, what a 1 it was. If Welsh couldn't own up to being excited, there was no shortage of players who would. Take Chris Slade, Virginia's soon-to-be all-American defensive end, for example. He had 10 tackles, including two sacks. By nightfall, his emotional reservoir was empty.
"With me, it was a personal vendetta," he said. "When both schools were recruiting me, Clemson bad-mouthed Virginia . . . said we'd never beat Clemson, that we should stick to basketball. This is better than a bowl game, better than anything. It's the best feeling I've ever had in my life. Beating Clemson makes anything worthwhile."
Away from the locker room in a nearly empty hall, Jason Wallace talked quietly. Wallace, very possibly, got more satisfaction from beating Clemson than any Virginia player, perhaps more than all combined. Wallace, you might recall, was the goat in the 1988 loss to Clemson that should have been the streak-ender for Virginia. With less than two minutes in the game, Wallace didn't see a Clemson receiver whom he was supposed to cover sneak into the game. The receiver caught the winning touchdown pass for Clemson because Wallace didn't cover him at all.
Today Wallace took a punt return 79 yards to set up the touchdown that turned a six-point lead to 13, forcing Clemson to abandon its game plan. Wallace hadn't cried yet, but you could tell he would as soon as the last reporter left the hallway. "It haunted me so," he said of the '88 game. "It was really, really hard to take. It was my first start. Nobody remembers that I had 13 tackles in the game, two defended passes.
"I was close to the seniors on that team and I felt I would hate for my last chance to beat Clemson go by. I'm relieved. I can't describe my feelings. When I was tackled at the end of that punt return and I got up, I felt like a weight had been lifted from my shoulders. I felt I had cleared myself. I am relieved, yes. I can't describe what I'm feeling. I still haven't released everything yet, but I'm sure I will."
The scope of what Virginia accomplished cannot be overstated. No team in Division I-A had lost to another team 30 straight times without a victory, not even Northwestern to Michigan, not Northwestern to Ohio State, not even Maryland to Penn State (1-29). We're talking forever. That's why this will have to be considered the biggest victory in the long, sorry history of Virginia football, until the Cavaliers win a New Year's Day bowl game.
They are expecting a lot here at Virginia now, probably too much. People look down the schedule and they see the games with Georgia Tech and North Carolina State will be played at home, and they start talking about an undefeated season, 11-0. Virginia undefeated? "It was a special game," Wallace said. "A date with a 29-year nemesis. From that standpoint, I guess it will be hard to top or even to match that."
Yes, it will be hard for Virginia to play much better than it did today. With 11 minutes left in the game, Virginia's defense had solved Clemson's running game. Clemson has to run; it has no Plan B, whether under Danny Ford or this new coach, Ken Hatfield, in his debut. Completely befuddled, Clemson called three timeouts in the same offensive series, two consecutively. That's defeated.
"You know what felt better than anything?" Slade asked. "Here was big, bad Clemson, the team that's been making us and everybody else in the league call timeouts for so many years, and now we were making them call the audibles and call the timeouts."
It was said that Tony Covington, a fifth-year defensive back, came back for a final season in part because he wanted another crack at Clemson. "We talked earlier this summer about a David-Goliath thing," he said. "But somebody said, 'Hey, wait a minute. We're not David and they're not Goliath. It's more even than that.' "
That Virginia has won eight straight regular season games and 17 of 19 would support that notion. The victory over Clemson, even on the second Saturday of the season, only reinforces the feeling many have that Virginia can challenge for No. 1. Welsh, as you could probably guess, doesn't want to hear that kind of talk. "I'm glad we won and I'm glad it's over," he said. "It was a long buildup. We've been hearing about this since the summer. The best part may be that we won't have to hear about it any more until next year."