BLACKSBURG, VA., NOV. 24 -- Memo to the Sugar Bowl Selection Committee: Close your eyes and pray.
Pray that Virginia starting quarterback Shawn Moore, tight end Bruce McGonnigal, left guard Chris Stearns and right guard Chris Borsari will be healed from injuries and able to play by Jan. 1. Pray that they will make a difference for the Cavaliers in a game against the Southeastern Conference champion, probably Tennessee. Pray that you did not make a serious, serious mistake by committing yourself to invite a Virginia team that got whipped by the Virginia Tech Hokies, 38-13, today before a state-record 54,157 fans at Lane Stadium.
It was the third loss in four games for the Cavaliers, who trailed 24-0 before 25 minutes had been played. They end the regular season with an 8-3 record after they had started 7-0 and been ranked No. 1 for three weeks. They will be the first team in 17 seasons to go to the Sugar Bowl with three losses (Nebraska and Florida both had three losses entering the 1974 game). And since they were ranked 17th before today's game, they also likely will go to New Orleans unranked.
"Today just wasn't their day," said Milton Walther, Sugar Bowl president and selection chairman, who formalized Virginia's invitation in a by-the-numbers ceremony with Coach George Welsh and President John Casteen that seemed very out of place in the Cavaliers' subdued locker room. "But they'll be back to full strength for the Sugar Bowl, and we expect a great game."
That may be wishful thinking on both counts. Only Borsari (broken leg) is assured of returning for the game, said team physician Frank McCue. And with Virginia playing Tennessee, or Auburn, it could be the first time since 1945 that neither Sugar Bowl team will be ranked in the top 10.
"We have hopes" for Moore (dislocated right thumb) and Stearns (herniated disk in his back), McCue said. "We'll just have to see. It's going to be pretty close on Shawn."
McGonnigal (bruised spleen) is coming along more slowly than expected, McCue said. He said McGonnigal underwent a CAT scan on Monday, and it still showed a hematoma on the spleen.
None of this is good news for a Virginia offense that generated its lowest point total this season, 374 yards (16 off the season low, vs. Clemson) and committed a season-worst five turnovers. Even the most reliable part of the Cavaliers' offense -- the extra point -- failed them. Their first kick was blocked, the first time Virginia had missed an extra point since November 1985 -- a span of 174 in a row.
Moore's understudy, Matt Blundin, making his second collegiate start, had a hand in all five turnovers. He completed 21 of 34 passes for 305 yards, but threw three second-half interceptions, fumbled away a snap and had a poor exchange with fullback Gary Steele for another lost fumble.
"I maybe lost my poise a little bit," Blundin said. "I wish I could have played better."
A muffed punt made it six giveaways that led to 17 points for Virginia Tech (6-5), which got marvelous performances from junior quarterback Will Furrer and sophomore tailback Vaughn Hebron.
Using his left arm as a stiletto, Furrer neatly carved out a 16-of-23 passing performance that was the most accurate against Virginia this season. Hebron, a deceptively powerful scatback who missed the last 3 1/2 games because of a pulled groin, carried the ball 31 times for 142 yards. The Cavaliers had been allowing opposing teams to run for an average of only 135 yards per game.
All in all it was a glorious time for Virginia Tech fans, who had not seen a victory over Virginia in three years. When the final gun sounded, they stormed the field, successfully attacked the goal posts and generally carried on beneath a bright crescent moon.
"It's the greatest win I've been associated with," said senior split end Nick Cullen, who caught a touchdown pass.
Hokies Coach Frank Beamer was really charged up. His bowl-less team lost to bowl-bound Maryland and Florida State early in the season on late-game plays. In its last four games, it has defeated bowl-bound Southern Mississippi and North Carolina State, lost to now-No. 3 Georgia Tech on a last-second field goal and demolished Virginia.
"I don't understand our bowl setup," he said. "College football is the only sport that does not reward the teams that are playing best at the end. . . . I think we have proved by the way we have played at the end of the season that we are one of the better teams in the country. We deserve to be in a bowl."
So does Virginia, but the Sugar Bowl?
"Now, at this point, it's an easy argument to say we now don't," said Virginia wide receiver Derek Dooley, who, as son of former Georgia coach Vince Dooley, has a pretty good sense of Sugar Bowl tradition. "But at the time the decision was made I think we did. We just weren't able to continue our ways."
Virginia's offense imploded most of the first half. The normally sure-handed Dooley dropped third-down passes on each of the Cavaliers' first three possessions, and Blundin lost the snap on a fourth and one at Virginia Tech's 31 the next time they had the ball. Only a penalty-aided touchdown with 1:03 left in the half allowed the Cavaliers to reach intermission trailing 24-6.
They moved within 24-13 with just less than seven minutes left in the third quarter on a 66-yard pass to wide receiver Herman Moore, who caught six passes for 180 yards. He also tied the NCAA single-season record for most games with a touchdown catch, set the ACC single-season receiving yardage mark and set Virginia's single-season reception and career receiving yardage records.
Virginia held, and Blundin -- looking completely in charge for the first time -- moved the offense from its 26 to a first down at the Hokies 14. But Steele fumbled. Blundin threw an interception on the Cavaliers' next possession and Virginia Tech converted with a nine-yard touchdown run by Hebron with a little less than 10 minutes to play.
As a final indignity, Jason Wallace muffed a punt at Virginia's 4-yard line with 4:54 left. The Hokies turned that into another touchdown.