After landmark victory, Va. tries to keep its focus

September 11, 1990|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Sun Staff Correspondent

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- The goal post at the north end of Scott Stadium had been torn down with 48 seconds left on the game clock. On the scoreboard above, a reminder that "The Streak Is Over!" kept flashing along with the final score: Virginia 20, Clemson 7.

The end of an 0-for-29, 35-year losing streak to the Tigers here Saturday also trumpeted the beginning of a new age for the Cavaliers. Welcome to the world of big-time college football and, with it, some great expectations.

"It shouldn't be tough for them to handle, but they're still 20-and 21-year-old kids," Virginia coach George Welsh said in his quiet dressing room, a few feet away from the celebration that was going on outside and would continue in this suddenly football-crazed city well into the night. "We have to be careful."

From the moment they arrived in the locker room, the memories still joyfully clear in their heads, Welsh had been imploring his players to forget about Clemson and start thinking about Navy (1-0). The 11th-ranked Cavaliers (2-0) play host to the Midshipmen on Saturday.

It was not going to be easy. Then again, Virginia isn't one to take any team lightly. The week before their victory over Clemson -- when everyone already was talking about the Tigers -- the Cavaliers routed Kansas in Lawrence, 59-10.

"There's definitely an added type of pressure winning a game like this," said Bruce McGonnigal, a senior tight end from Baltimore. "When you're expected to lose and you win, people start looking at you differently. The key thing for us is not to look at ourselves any differently."

Even though they finished 10-3 last season, even though they shared the Atlantic Coast Conference championship with Duke, there is a different perception about the Cavaliers than there was a year ago. Or a month ago. Or even a week ago.

The victory over the then-ninth-ranked Tigers had given the Cavaliers the kind of credibility across the country they had never dared, or previously cared, to dream about in the past.

That the game was televised nationally (on ESPN) certainly had provided Virginia, and senior quarterback Shawn Moore, with a larger stage than that on which they were accustomed to playing.

"Nobody heard of Charlottesville before this game," said sophomore defensive end Chris Slade. "It took a game like this for us to earn everyone's respect, not just in the ACC, but around the country."

Said Moore about the end of what was the longest such losing streak in Division I football: "It feels like a bear has been lifted from our shoulders. We can now continue with the tradition of Virginia football."

In truth, the tradition began with the victory over Clemson. As usual, Moore played a large part, not so much for compiling Heisman-like statistics (13 of 28 passing, for 145 yards and a touchdown; 10 rushes for 63 yards) as for making big plays.

"He's a very collected individual," said McGonnigal. "He thrives in situations like that. We have a very relaxed team. We're not a bunch of rah-rah guys. We know what we have to do and we do it."

Moore's experience is one of the reasons Virginia beat Clemson. He is among eight fifth-year seniors on the team, seven of whom start. It is this kind of maturity that makes Welsh and his players believe they can handle the new-found attention.

"I would hope they can," said Welsh, who is in his ninth year at Virginia after spending nine as head coach at Navy. "But I want to try to keep it [the Clemson victory] in perspective. It's only a football game. And it's only one game of an 11-game season."

Said McGonnigal: "It was a big win, but we didn't put everything that we had left emotionally into this game. There are a lot of older guys on this team. We'll help the younger guys keep things in the right perspective."

On the field, the biggest difference this year for Virginia could be its defense. The seven points scored by the Tigers matched the fewest ever by Clemson in the series.

It is still a young defense -- four sophomores and a freshman start -- but one that compensates with raw talent for what it lacks in experience. "These guys can flat-out play," senior defensive tackle Joe Hall said of rising stars such as Slade and freshman linebacker P.J. Killian.

Though the expectations are going to be greater, the schedule gets much easier. The only real obstacles to an unbeaten season appear to be a road game at Duke next week and home games against Georgia Tech (Nov. 3) and suddenly surprising Maryland (Nov. 17).

Are we talking national championship, with a story line similar to that of Brigham Young in 1984? It is a bit premature, considering that the Cavaliers have not even cracked the top 10 yet. But it isn't as far-fetched as it might seem.

"We're not looking that far," said defensive back Jason Wallace, whose 79-yard punt return set up Virginia's second touchdown. "Since the beginning of training camp, we've been trying to take things one day at a time."

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