After steadily progressing over the regular season's final five games, Virginia reverted back to the form of its early-season struggles and was whipped, 63-21, by Illinois in the Micronpc.com Bowl before 31,089 at Pro Player Stadium tonight.
"We didn't play with any heart," Virginia quarterback Dan Ellis said. "They just physically whupped [us] up and down the field."
Illinois scored 28 unanswered points in the second quarter, taking advantage of miscues in Virginia's pass coverage and special teams to bury the Cavaliers (7-5) early and hand them their third consecutive postseason loss. Illinois quarterback Kurt Kittner caught one touchdown and completed 5 of 8 passes for 136 yards and two more touchdowns in the period, during which the Illini allowed Virginia past midfield just once and blocked two punts to spark the run.
"We made great plays special teams-wise," said Illinois Coach Ron Turner, the brother of Washington Redskins Coach Norv Turner. "Kittner has a great touch and can throw the long ball. . . . The offensive line did an outstanding job."
Illinois (8-4), which scored nine touchdowns on 13 possessions, won its first postseason appearance since a 30-0 Liberty Bowl victory over East Carolina in 1994. The Illini's 63 points were the second-most scored in any bowl game. Texas A&M scored 65 against Brighma Young in the 1990 Holiday Bowl.
The loss was the Cavaliers' worst in 11 postseason appearances and the worst overall under Coach George Welsh since a 58-10 loss to South Carolina in 1987. It also was Virginia's fifth in five bowl games in Florida. The Cavaliers have lost twice in the Carquest Bowl (1994 and 1996), once in the Gator Bowl (1991) and once in the Citrus Bowl (1990).
"I'm embarrassed," Welsh said. "I don't have any explanation."
The changes that allowed the Cavaliers (7-5) to rebound from a rough opening six weeks--an ugly 20-17 opening victory against North Carolina Sept. 4 and blowout losses to Clemson and Virginia Tech and an upset loss to Duke--were not apparent tonight.
The Virginia offense, which had averaged 37.2 points as the team went 4-1 to close the regular season, remained stagnant during the first half as Virginia special teams and defensive miscues helped the Illini jump to a 42-7 halftime lead. Even the individual success of all-American tailback Thomas Jones---23 carries for 110 yards, five receptions for 31 yards--could not overcome the defense's inability to stop the Illinois passing attack and two blocked punts.
The Cavaliers' secondary was repeatedly caught out of position. Kittner marched his team downfield at will, finishing 14 of 24 passing for 254 yards and two touchdowns. Kittner completed passes of 61, 39, 36 and 31 yards en route to a 12-for-19, 217-yard first half. Kittner also caught a 30-yard touchdown pass from wide receiver Brandon Lloyd on a reverse. After the score, Kittner threw the ball into the stands, apparently attempting to throw the ball to his mother, Lee Trantin, who has multiple sclerosis. Kittner has said his mother is his inspiration.
The Cavaliers' two defensive stops came on an early fumble recovery and an end-zone interception by cornerback Dwayne Stukes late in the first quarter. But after Stukes's interception, the Cavaliers punted on their final three possessions, two of which were blocked and set up Illinois touchdowns.
"They picked us apart on defense," Welsh said. "We made some crucial mistakes in coverage, and then it just snowballed."
After sacking Kittner on the game's first play, the Cavaliers' front seven produced little pressure, even allowing the modest Illini running game to rack up 318 yards on 46 carries. The Illini were nearly perfect on third downs in the first half, converting on seven of eight opportunities and scoring two touchdowns in third-down situations.
Kittner established himself on the game's opening drive finding wide receiver Brandon Lloyd over the middle for a 39-yard pass to the Virginia 18. Kittner capped the drive with a sweep from two yards out to put Illinois up 7-0. The Cavaliers capitalized on Illini tailback Jameel Cook's fumble two series later with a seven-yard touchdown run by Jones that tied the score with 7 minutes 24 seconds left in the first quarter. After that, however, the closest Virginia got to the end zone in the first half was wide receiver Tavon Mason's fumble after a reverse at the Illinois 22.
Ellis completed 7 of 19 first-half passes for 64 yards, with only one, a 19-yarder to tight end Billy Baber, going for more than 11 yards. He was not helped by the loss of three players at left tackle in the half, with sophomore starter Josh Lawson (knee), all-Atlantic Coast Conference senior left guard Noel LaMontagne (knee) going down in the first quarter and freshman backup Mike Mullins (shoulder) falling in the second. Starting right tackle Brad Barnes ultimately shifted over to left and avoided injury.
"I've never heard of anyone losing three left tackles in one half," LaMontagne said.