CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- This is beginning to look like 1990 revisited for the University of Virginia football team. There were signs all over Scott Stadium yesterday, both good and ultimately bad, against Clemson.
After storming to a four-touchdown lead, after whipping a sellout crowd of 44,400 into a frenzy, the 10th-ranked Cavaliers fell apart. Virginia's unbeaten season collapsed in a shocking 29-28 Atlantic Coast Conference loss to the 25th-ranked Tigers.
"I can't account for it, but it's something that happens in football," said Virginia coach George Welsh, whose Cavaliers led 28-0 in the second quarter and 28-7 at halftime.
"The Lord's still in the miracle business," said Clemson coach Ken Hatfield, whose Tigers completed the biggest comeback in the school's 96-year football history when Nelson Welch made a 32-yard field goal with 55 seconds remaining.
The loss, shockingly similar to a 41-38 loss to Georgia Tech here two years ago, was the first for Virginia (5-1, 4-1) this season and dropped the Cavaliers behind Florida State in the ACC.
The victory, which seemed more than a little unlikely even early in the third quarter, enabled Clemson (3-2, 1-2) to avert its first 0-3 start in the ACC.
"Option teams aren't supposed to come back like that, isn't that right?" said Hatfield, taking a shot at those who had criticized his team's lackluster start.
While Virginia had a difficult time explaining why its offense had only six first downs in the second half -- Terry Kirby going out with a bruised shoulder early in the fourth quarter might have accounted for it -- and why its defense gave up 402 yards on the ground overall, Clemson had no problem figuring out why it rallied from such a huge deficit.
"Louis Solomon was the spark," Hatfield said of his redshirt freshman quarterback who came off the bench in the second quarter and finished with 116 yards rushing.
"That one option play got us going."
Though Solomon's 64-yard touchdown run with 1:53 to go in the second quarter gave Clemson its first points, the play seemed to lift the Tigers out of their first-half funk. They nearly scored again before the half ended -- a fumble killed a drive in the waning moments -- and then continued their comeback in the second half.
A 1-yard, fourth-down plunge by fullback Howard Hall early in the second half, a 57-yard run by tailback Rodney Blunt late in the third quarter and a 27-yard run by tailback Rudy Harris reduced Clemson's deficit to 28-26 with 5:31 left. But a missed field-goal try and a missed extra-point attempt by Welch loomed large.
"I just wanted another chance to win the game," said Welch, a sophomore who had made eight of 11 field-goal attempts before yesterday.
It came when Virginia quarterback Bobby Goodman, who had thrown four first-half touchdowns, was intercepted with a little less than four minutes to go.
Trying to hit 6-5 sophomore Tyrone Davis on a curl-in, Goodman was intercepted by Clemson safety Darnell Stephens, who returned the ball 10 yards to the Tigers' 35.
"We had a streak down the sideline," said Goodman, who earlier in the game connected with Davis for touchdown passes of 33 and 37 yards.
"I thought I had him. It was a bad throw on my part."
Said Stephens: "It was a possession route. I've been studying films. Their No. 2 receiver goes out in the flat and their No. 1 receiver [Davis] does a curl. Instead of going into the flat, I took a gamble. It paid off."
It paid off when, after getting a first down at his team's 46, Solomon found senior wide-out Larry Ryans in the clear. His 45-yard pass, which Ryans had to dive to catch, put the Tigers at Virginia's 9-yard line with 2:45 left.
For a moment, it appeared that Clemson's offense would self-destruct.
A holding penalty -- their 11th of the game -- put the Tigers back at the 20. After two short dives up the middle by fullback Rudy Harris brought the ball to the 15, Hatfield sent in Welch.
Twice, George Welsh called timeout, burning Virginia's last two timeouts in the process. Asked about the calls, Welsh said: "I wanted to save time for us. Otherwise, we didn't have a chance."
Said Welch: "After I made it, I thought about the Florida State game when they came back and scored in the last couple of minutes to win. The difference in that game was that we ran out of time. I think they ran out of time today, too."
Virginia, after driving from its 27 to the Clemson 40, ran out of time when Goodman's last-gasp pass into the end zone was batted away as time ran out.
The Cavaliers were still stunned a half-hour after the game. .
"It's like we came to a screeching halt," said offensive guard Mark Dixon. Virginia's unbeaten season certainly did. Maybe this is 1990 revisited.