An upset of No. 1-ranked Florida State proved too tricky for Virginia tonight, as the Seminoles used an offensive resurgence in the second half to bury the Cavaliers, 35-10, at Scott Stadium and clinch at least a tie for its eighth Atlantic Coast Conference championship in as many seasons as a member of the conference.
Virginia senior tailback Thomas Jones rushed for 164 yards on 26 carries, surpassing Tiki Barber as the school's all-time rushing leader, but even he couldn't keep the Cavaliers (4-4, 3-3 ACC) from losing a third consecutive home game for the first time since 1986 or having a .500 record after eight games for the first time since 1988.
The game turned not so much on his presence but on the absence of starting quarterback Dan Ellis after halftime.
Helped by three interceptions during the first 18 minutes, Virginia led 10-7 late in the first half. But with the Cavaliers trying to add to the margin in the half's final minute, Ellis received two punishing shots from Florida State defenders, suffered a concussion and had to be replaced by backup David Rivers in the second half.
Ellis "cleared up," Coach George Welsh said. "It's just [the medical staff] didn't want to put him in."
And that was just fine with Florida State Coach Bobby Bowden, who said: "Ellis was keeping us off balance. If he stayed in there, it might have been a different story."
Rivers, returning from a hip injury himself this week, could not provide much of a threat to Florida State's secondary. That allowed the Seminoles (9-0, 7-0) to load the line of scrimmage and stop Jones, who rushed for 113 yards on 14 carries during the first half, including a 71-yarder against a defense that had been allowing an average of 86 yards rushing per game.
Jones has 3,463 yards for his career (Barber's record was 3,389) and 1,273 for the season on 235 carries. With a season average of nearly 160 yards per game, if he maintains his present pace over the Cavaliers' final three games--against Georgia Tech, Buffalo and Maryland--he will break the ACC single-season record of 1,720 yards, set in 1970 by North Carolina's Don McCauley.
"I definitely would have rather gotten the record on a good note," Jones said. "I felt like we were in the game in the first half and then in the second half we had some bad breaks and it got away from us. . . . In the second half, they operated and they really hurt us."
After his awful first half, Florida State starting quarterback Chris Weinke engineered a patient 10-play drive from the Seminoles 20-yard line to the Cavaliers 1. But Seminoles quarterback Marcus Outzen, sent into the game to sneak the ball across the goal line, fumbled and defensive end Ljubomir Stamenich recovered.
However, Virginia couldn't get a first down, and a 26-yard punt by Donnie Scott gave the Seminoles the ball at the Virginia 31. Four plays later, Weinke found flanker Marvin Minnis over the middle for a 20-yard touchdown that gave Florida State its first lead of the evening, 14-10, with 3 minutes 16 seconds left in the third quarter.
On the Cavaliers' next possession, Rivers tried to throw a pass to Jones in the flat on third and six from the Virginia 24. However, nose guard Corey Simon, having dropped off the line of scrimmage on a zone blitz, dove in front of Jones and intercepted at the 27.
Virginia almost made another defensive stop, forcing Weinke to scramble from the pocket under strong pressure at the 35. But he slipped through one tackle and side-armed a pass to fullback Dan Kendra, who rumbled to the Cavaliers 11 for a 17-yard gain. Two plays later, tailback Travis Minor scurried in from six yards to give Florida State a 21-10 lead.
Seminoles all-American wide receiver Peter Warrick made it 28-10 with his usual flair, scoring on a 50-yard reception he took from sideline to sideline with 7:53 left in the game. Florida State added its final score with 1:14 to play, moments after Virginia's Ahmad Hawkins fumbled a punt at the Cavaliers 9.
Although Weinke threw those three early interceptions, cornerback Dwayne Stukes's interception at the Florida State 20 was the only one the Cavaliers turned into points. Jones broke a scoreless tie with a 16-yard run with 12:04 left in the second quarter.
The Seminoles responded with a 91-yard, 14-play drive touchdown drive that lasted 6:42. But Jones's 71-yard gain resulted in Todd Braverman's 26-yard field goal that gave the Cavaliers the 10-7 lead with 2:21 left in the half.