Considering the academic, legal and injury casualties the Virginia football team has suffered, coming out of a daunting opening stretch with a 3-2 record would have seemed reasonable before the season. But after Virginia was thrashed by Virginia Tech, 31-7, Saturday night, few of the Cavaliers were satisfied.
Those opening games included two Atlantic Coast Conference road games and consecutive games against top-25 opponents Brigham Young and Virginia Tech. Still, Virginia Coach George Welsh said today a seven-win season wasn't out of reach.
"I was hoping to be 4-1, I really was," Welsh said. "We couldn't quite steal one in there somewhere, whether it was Clemson [a 33-14 loss Sept. 11] or Virginia Tech. Maybe we did steal one at BYU [a 45-40 win Sept. 25]. Maybe it could have been 2-3. We're not in the best position, but we're not in the worst, either."
Virginia opened the season with a last-minute 20-17 victory at North Carolina on Sept. 4, then was dominated by the Tigers. The offense, with a mostly veteran unit returning, had to prove it could consistently score. After a 35-7 victory over Wake Forest and the win over the Cougars the following week, it appeared it could. But against the Hokies' swarming defense, there was no room for star tailback Thomas Jones to run, and Dan Ellis was sacked six times.
"I'm about where I thought I would be" through his first five games as a starter, Ellis said. "I've played well up to this point. I can play better, but I'm playing about as well as I could imagine I would."
With 13 freshmen and sophomores on the defensive depth chart, there were no delusions that the Cavaliers would win games on defense, as they have for most of the past five seasons. The unit's inability to stop opponents consistently has put Virginia's offense in a disadvantageous position. When the Cavaliers are given the ball, it is usually deep in their territory. They spent most of the Clemson and Virginia Tech games trying to catch up, causing them to abandon the Jones-fueled rushing attack and throw the ball.
"We're obviously getting a lot of pressure, with the losses we've had on defense, to put up points and carry the team," guard Noel LaMontagne said. "We're slowly adjusting to that role. It's a role Virginia football usually hasn't been in."
The defense, after losing four starters to the 1998 NFL draft, lost four more in the offseason. Junior linebacker Donny Green and sophomore defensive end Darryl Sanders were ruled academically ineligible. The school suspended sophomore linebacker John Duckett and sophomore safety Devon Simmons for their role in an on-campus fight.
Then came injuries. Four more starters--senior end Travis Griffith, sophomore tackle Monsanto Pope and senior cornerbacks Antwan Harris and Dwayne Stukes--were injured in the opener against the Tar Heels. Griffith and Harris returned briefly, but Griffith is out for the year with a severe ankle sprain. Pope's knee injury might keep him out all season as well, while Stukes (quadriceps) and Harris (hamstring) continue to be listed as questionable.
Junior linebacker Earl Sims, out with an abscess in his abdomen since the opener, is a few weeks away from playing. Starting junior middle linebacker Yubrenal Isabelle, one of the unit's best performers with 41 tackles through four games, could miss this week after sitting out the Tech game because of the death of his mother.
"The total number of injuries, we've had that before," Welsh said. "But they're all on one side of the ball. All those people who were suspended, they were on defense, too. That's why it's hard to execute."