Virginia's battered defense has been discounted since before the season even started, when four potential starters were lost to academic and behavioral suspensions. A rash of injuries to starters in the season's opening weeks depleted the group further, making the Cavaliers' 7-4 record and meeting with Illinois on Thursday in the MicronPC.com Bowl even more remarkable.
The Cavaliers meet the Illini with the defense coming off perhaps its worst performance of the season, giving up 445 rushing yards to Maryland in a 34-30 Virginia victory Nov. 20. However, the unit received some good news earlier this month when senior defensive end Travis Griffith, thought to be out for the season with a high ankle sprain suffered in September, returned to the team.
"We had a lot of injuries this year," Griffith said. "This team had to overcome a lot of adversity to get to where they are. This team played their hearts out every single game. It's just great that they were able to get to where they are."
Sixteen defensive players made their starting debuts this season. Several freshmen became regulars, including both of the teams' starting safeties. While the unit was ranked seventh in the nine-team conference and 90th in the nation, giving up 394.6 yards per game, it managed to play well enough to help the team to a 5-3 Atlantic Coast Conference record, good enough for a tie for second place.
All the while, Cavaliers Coach George Welsh has maintained that his defense has slowed, not stopped teams, just enough for the offense to take over. He may get more than that Thursday, as nearly the entire defense is healthy for the first time since the first week of the season.
Griffith first sprained his right ankle in the season opener against North Carolina Sept. 4, and lasted just six plays against Clemson the following week. X-rays taken the following week revealed the sprain was severe, and during a subsequent operation the joint was cleaned and a screw put through two bones to hold it in place. Griffith's rehabilitation went better than expected, particularly after the screw was removed in November, and he will be able to play Thursday.
"He doesn't have his starting job back yet, but he might," Welsh said. "We'll have to see how he practices. . . . I thought he was done with football, but he wanted one more game."
This gives the Cavaliers three experienced ends: Griffith and sophomores Ljubomir Stamenich and Monsanto Pope, who returned from a knee injury late in the season. In the middle, Welsh has a trio of veteran tackles in Maurice Anderson (recovered from a nagging turf toe injury), Johnny Shivers and Kofi Bawuah, who will have more room to maneuver if the ends can apply more pressure.
"It could be a whole lot better," Anderson said. "Knowing we didn't have Griff to get a lot of attention, [opponents] kind of keyed inside. They double-teamed me and Johnny and did a whole lot of things in there. Now, they can get more pressure and free us up inside."
Virginia's secondary now boasts three veteran cornerbacks--seniors Dwayne Stukes and Antwan Harris, who had nagging leg injuries in the early season, and junior Tim Spruill--and four game-tested safeties--sophomore Jermaine Lauzon and freshmen Jerton Evans, Shernard Newby and Chris Williams.
Every starting linebacker earned some form of all-ACC honors: Junior Byron Thweatt and senior Shannon Taylor were second-team selections, while junior Yubrenal Isabelle, who Welsh said is fully recovered from a November bout with mononucleosis, received an honorable mention.
While the healthy return of Stukes, Harris, Anderson, Pope and Isabelle in time for the bowl game was expected, Griffith's return was not. On a defense that has had moderate success rushing the passer (28 sacks) and an often-suspect secondary, a strong presence at end could have a significant impact. Griffith is the school's active career leader with 17 sacks.
"One more game," Griffith said with a grin last week. "I wasn't ready to go out to the real world yet."
Griffith seriously considered ending his career in May, when, as a redshirt junior, he received his anthropology degree. He lined up a marketing job with SunCom, an AT&T-affiliated company, which he now reports to Jan. 3. Griffith was tired of spending time in the training room after missing three games in 1998 because of elbow, back and knee problems.
"I didn't think he'd be back, even if he were healthy again," Welsh said. "But this is his last shot."
Griffith, happy to put on his pads one more time, will accept whatever role the coaches give him.
"By game time, I'll be back to close to 100 percent," he said. "If [the coaches] only want me to play 10 plays, I'll play 10 plays. If they want me to play 20, I'll play 20."
Who: Virginia vs. Illinois.
Where: Pro Player Stadium, Miami.
When: Thursday, 7 p.m.
Records: Virginia 7-4 (5-3, tied for second in ACC); Illinois 7-4 (4-4, tied for fifth in Big Ten).
Coaches: Virginia, George Welsh; Illinois, Ron Turner.
Payout: $750,000 per team.