CHARLOTTESVILLE -- A deep, dark, depressing gloom hung over Thomas Jefferson's school just after sundown Saturday. The University of Virginia was playing to stay in the hunt for a national title. Shawn Moore was vying for the Heisman Trophy. This was the most important football game in the school's history.
And Virginia lost. Blew it, really. Yes, Georgia Tech's Shawn Jones is a star-in-waiting. Yes, Tech came back from two-touchdown deficits twice in an inspired, breathless performance. But Virginia should have won. Virginia should be preparing for a national championship game, the definitive one, on New Year's Day. But the Cavaliers lost it all: the game, the ACC lead, a shot at the national title, a legitimate shot for Moore to win the Heisman.
We could waste time talking about Virginia's inability to stop Georgia Tech just once when it counted in the second half. But Virginia's offensive players knew they would have to outscore Tech to win.
Virginia won't be No. 1 anymore because a tight end who was supposed to be in the game wasn't, nullifying a touchdown pass that might have won the game.
Virginia isn't No. 1 anymore because the leading offense in the nation failed to move the ball one measly foot in four hikes from inside the 1.
Virginia isn't No. 1 anymore because George Welsh elected to go for the field goal on fourth and goal from the 6, even though a tie was as good as a loss.
As scintillating as the first 55 minutes were, Virginia's season can be condensed into the final five minutes, after Herman Moore, the best wide receiver this side of Jerry Rice, turned a 15-yard crossing route into a 48-yard adventure to just outside the 10. A Tech penalty and two plays later, it was third down at the 1.
Once there, there was only one play to call. This is not second-guessing. Standing in the press box, Virginia assistant coaches screamed "SNEAK! SNEAK! SNEAK!" until their throats were raw.
Shawn Moore had already sneaked for a pair of touchdowns. The play was perfectly unstoppable. But for some reason, Moore handed off to Nikki Fisher. He didn't get in, but six inches gave Virginia a first down. On the next play, with the coaches screaming "SNEAK! SNEAK!" until they nearly fainted, Moore handed off again to Fisher, who tried to go over the top. No gain.
On the third try, the communication was clear: Moore would sneak in, give Virginia a 42-38 lead, meaning Tech would need a touchdown to win. Problem. The left side of the Cavaliers' line moved. Illegal procedure, ball back to the 6.
Virginia got back to the 1, for third and goal, but only 10 players came out of the huddle. Only six -- there have to be seven -- were on the line of scrimmage. "We fouled up," Welsh said. He saw it, the players saw it from the sideline. They yelled for a timeout. "But I was totally unaware we had only 10 players," Shawn Moore said.
Having 10 players on the field, in itself, wasn't the problem because Moore threw a touchdown pass to Aaron Mundy. The fact that the second tight end, Mark Cooke, was on the sideline instead of being on the end of the line of scrimmage made it an illegal formation. No touchdown.
The flag wasn't thrown instantly. Tech's Ken Swilling knew he saw no illegal motion. "We thought they had scored," he said. "Six men on the line, is that what it was?"
Herman Moore was on the sideline. "I thought we'd gotten away with one," he said. No, just as his hopes began to rise that the zebras had fallen asleep, the yellow flag came tumbling down.
So on fourth and goal from just outside the 5, Welsh elected to kick the tying field goal.
Now we're second-guessing.
George Welsh, for winning at Navy and Virginia, should be put in the Hall of Fame while he's still active. Without him, Virginia has nothing; Scott Stadium is empty; Virginia is Northwestern.
He should have gone for the touchdown. Call a timeout and say the following: "Do you guys want to be remembered as the best team in the nation? Shawn, lob the damn thing to Herman like you did on the two-point conversion in the first half."
You have to go for it because the Virginia defense has two chances of stopping Georgia Tech in the final two minutes: slim and none. "I wasn't going for a tie," Welsh explained. "There were still 2 1/2 minutes to go. I was hoping the defense would rise up for a change."
If Welsh really was going for the win, why didn't he use any of his three timeouts and save time for the best offense in the country?
You knew Virginia's defense couldn't stop Tech from driving in the final two minutes. Herman Moore knew. "Personally, I wanted to go for the touchdown," he said. "Basically, you're giving the ball back to an offense which had been moving it up and down the field the whole game."
If Virginia couldn't line up and get Shawn Moore in the end zone on fourth down on its home field against any college football team in the nation, the Cavaliers wouldn't have deserved a national title shot anyway. A tie tells a nation full of skeptics the Cavs aren't that good, just like so many people had been saying.
When Scott Sisson kicked that 37-yard field goal with seven seconds to play, Virginia was utterly devastated. The goal posts, greased to prevent them from being torn down, were never safer.
What is the likelihood Virginia will come to play another season with the best quarterback in the country, the best wide receiver in the country, one of the five best feature-backs (Terry Kirby) in the country, a great offensive line and kicker? You don't pass this way very often if you're Virginia.
We are left with impressions of Shawn Moore throwing for a school record 344 yards and rushing for three touchdowns; of Herman Moore -- the best player in the country, regardless of who gets the Heisman -- catching nine passes for 234 yards; of Shawn Jones and Tech running back William Bell saving their best for last; of Tech Coach Bobby Ross, a most deserving man, being so engulfed by well-wishers he barely had enough energy to get dressed afterward; of the sad, sad faces of Virginia players, realizing that six inches, at the goal line, is the canyon between glory and gloom.