Depleted by graduation, injuries and off-field troubles, merely making it to a bowl game should have been considered a solid season for Virginia. But after being thrashed by Illinois, 63-21, in the Micronpc.com Bowl Thursday, the Cavaliers expressed little satisfaction with their 7-5 season.
"This is the kind of game where you'd like to burn the tape, but I'm going to make sure they look at it," said Coach George Welsh, whose team had not given up that many points in any game since a 68-0 loss to Texas in 1977, five years before he became Virginia's head coach.
"We struggled this year," Virginia quarterback Dan Ellis said. "We had losses; but when we had everybody back, we still didn't play very well. So it doesn't make a difference. When we get back, all those people better remember what this feels like. If they don't, I'm going to have something to say about it."
Despite the moderate success of the rebuilding season, which included upsets of Georgia Tech and Brigham Young, there is no guarantee that the Cavaliers will improve significantly in 2000.
The offense has all its wide receivers returning, after they developed as the year went on, along with Ellis, a junior who finished the season ranked eighth nationally in passing efficiency. Tight end Billy Baber and all but two members of the offensive line rotation come back, although those two, center John St. Clair and left guard Noel LaMontagne, were all-Atlantic Coast Conference selections. The passing game relied on opposing defenses focusing on all-American tailback Thomas Jones, and rarely asserted itself as a significant threat.
Virginia must replace Jones, the leading rusher in school history, and has several candidates in sophomore Tyree Foreman and redshirt freshman Arlen Harris, who combined for 50 carries and 221 yards. The status of junior running back Antwoine Womack, who redshirted in 1999 and was second-team all-ACC in 1998, has not been resolved after he received his second misdemeanor assault conviction last month.
But the defense's two worst performances came in its final two games, against Illinois and Maryland. And despite the returning players, the team does not figure to improve its key vulnerabilities--multiple-receiver offenses and option running games.
Virginia's defense was depleted before the season began by the graduation of four NFL draft picks and the loss of sophomore linebacker John Duckett and sophomore safety Devon Simmons to suspensions for assault, and junior linebacker Donny Green and sophomore end Darryl Sanders to academic problems. Early in the season, four other starters suffered injuries.
The Cavaliers return six starters on defense, as well as another half-dozen with significant experience. Duckett, Simmons, Green and Sanders also are eligible to return. Both starting cornerbacks, Antwan Harris and Dwayne Stukes, will graduate. Junior Tim Spruill, who started occasionally over the past two seasons, performed unevenly this season. Sophomore Jermaine Lauzon lacks the speed to cover the ACC's premier wide receivers. A trio of freshman safeties--Jerton Evans, Chris Williams and Shernard Newby--was shredded by Illinois quarterback Kurt Kittner.
Sanders, junior Ljubomir Stamenich and several backups return at end. However, the middle of the defensive line, does not return either starter as Maurice Anderson and Johnny Shivers graduate.
Junior middle linebacker Yubrenal Isabelle (86 tackles in 10 games) and junior outside linebacker Byron Thweatt (72 tackles and a second-team all-ACC selection) return, along with Duckett, Earl Sims, a redshirt this season because of injury, and freshman Angelo Crowell, providing a potentially deep group.
"We'll have some experience," Isabelle said. "We'll have to tighten up our belts and start doing some things. . . . This hurts. This loss, if it does not motivate us in the offseason to get us to play better, I don't know what the heck will. We've got to learn, because I don't want to ever be a part of this again."