Virginia tailback Thomas Jones closes out one of the best rushing careers in school and Atlantic Coast Conference history in large part where it began, at the Micronpc.com Bowl.
Jones saw his first significant game action Dec. 27, 1996, when the game was known as the Carquest Bowl. After star senior tailback Tiki Barber bruised his left hip in the first quarter against Miami, Jones rushed 14 times for 67 yards, including one touchdown, in a 31-21 loss. Thursday, Jones will play his final game for the Cavaliers (7-4), against Illinois (7-4).
"I had a good time down here," Jones said. "I got to play against Miami, a great defense, a great team. I'm going against a good team Thursday, too, so it's definitely good to be back down here."
"Next year, I can watch football on Sunday and say, 'I handed the ball off to that guy,' " Cavaliers quarterback Dan Ellis said. "He's awesome."
Relatively little is at stake in the game. Virginia has lost its past two bowl appearances; Illinois (7-4) is making its first postseason appearance since the 1994 Liberty Bowl.
"It's another win," Virginia Coach George Welsh said. "Eight-and-four is better than 7-5, by any stretch of the imagination."
The Cavaliers fell to 3-3 after a 24-17 overtime loss to Duke on Oct. 9 before rebounding with a 47-26 thrashing of North Carolina State. Virginia then won four of its next five games, losing only to top-ranked Florida State.
Illinois is the first team since Michigan State in 1951 to beat both Michigan in Ann Arbor and Ohio State in Columbus. But the Illini also were beaten by Minnesota, 37-7, and lost in overtime to Indiana. The team is coached by Ron Turner, younger brother of Washington Redskins Coach Norv Turner.
Both defenses are ranked low nationally, with Virginia allowing 394.5 total yards per game (90th nationally) and Illinois giving up 388.5 (82nd). The offenses, meantime, have different strengths, with the Illini relying on a varied passing attack and the Cavaliers winning behind Jones's rushing and an improved play-action passing game with Ellis using Jones, tight ends Billy Baber and Casey Crawford, and several wide receivers. Virginia has averaged 37.2 points over its past five games, while Illinois averaged 29.6 over the whole season.
Illinois boasts a pass-heavy attack built around sophomore quarterback Kurt Kittner, who has thrown 22 touchdown passes and only four interceptions this season. Eight of his receivers had 12 or more catches this year. The Illini average 229.1 passing yards per game, while still having a solid running game behind tailbacks Steve Havard, a senior, and sophomore Rocky Harvey, who have combined for 1,367 yards on 297 carries for 13 touchdowns.
"They're a very big, physical team," Welsh said. "They're used to games like this."
The Illini defense will have a hard time stopping Jones, who rushed for 1,798 yards on 334 carries and 16 touchdowns. His 163.5 yards per game was good enough for third in the nation. Jones set the ACC career rushing mark with 3,998 yards and the record for most career (six) and single-season 200-yard games (four). He also caught 22 passes for 239 yards.
"We're not going to kid ourselves into thinking we're going to stop him," Turner said. "We're going to try to slow him down a little bit and keep him out of the end zone."
Jones, who was not among the five finalists for the Heisman Trophy, could be the first halfback picked in the NFL draft, particularly if he turns in impressive performances during the bowl game and the upcoming all-star games. Jones said he has been invited to all of them (Senior, Hula and East-West Shrine), but has yet to decide which he will attend.
"I'm not sure what I'm going to do," Jones said. "I haven't thought much about the NFL yet. I've got one more game left with my teammates, and we're going to have a good time."
While Jones said he has not given much thought to his future, his teammates and coaches have.
The draft "might be part of the reason why Thomas is not very upset about not winning the Heisman," Ellis said. "He knows what kind of player he is. He definitely feels like he should be the first running back taken in the draft. I think so, too. When it comes down to it, the awards are great, but if he's the first running back taken, that speaks more than all the awards."