The way this screwy college football season has been unfolding, it makes perfect sense that because a courageous gamble by Michigan came up short last Saturday, the Wolverines dropped out of the national championship picture and, in the process, helped to set up the latest Game of the Year. No, we're not talking about this Saturday's last tango between Notre Dame and Miami in South Bend, but about the Nov. 3 meeting between Virginia and Georgia Tech, those unbeaten titans from the ACC, the league where until now only Clemson has regarded football as something more than just a way to pass the time until they start pumping up the basketballs.
Yes, Virginia, there is a national championship in football, too, and maybe a splendid quarterback named Shawn Moore can do what Ralph Sampson never was able to do: bring a title home to Charlottesville. By romping past North Carolina State 31-0 last Saturday, the Cavaliers ran their record to 6-0 and inherited the top spot in the weekly AP poll. Michigan, which had moved to the top only a week earlier in the wake of Notre Dame's stunning 36-31 loss to Stanford, went for a two-point conversion with six seconds remaining against Michigan State and barely missed, giving the Spartans a 28-27 victory and knocking the Wolverines back down to No. 10.
So for the first time in the history of Virginia football, the Cavaliers are No. 1, for a week anyway. What's more, Clemson, a 20-7 victim of Virginia's on Sept. 8, is the only team to have even come close to making coach George Welsh's team work up a sweat. The Cavaliers are good, maybe even great, so let's let them enjoy this new and wonderful experience, at least until they play host to Georgia Tech, which is once again a ramblin' wreck after years of mediocrity. Unlike Virginia, the Yellow Jackets have an imposing football tradition. The Heisman Trophy, after all, was named for a fellow who once coached at Tech, and there was that 222-0 win over Cumberland in 1916, the biggest blowout in college history. Still, it is likely that no Tech team in the last 70 years has had a defense as good as the current one, which almost single-handedly beat Clemson 21-19 last Saturday in Atlanta to make the Yellow Jackets 5-0 and earn them a No. 12 ranking.
Afterward Tech coach Bobby Ross found himself saying hello to scouts from 10 different bowls. "It was great," Ross said, "because the only scouts we used to see after our games were Boy Scouts."
The bowl bird dogs, whose talent hunt officially began on Saturday, must have been deliriously happy when Florida and Oklahoma got stuck with their first losses last weekend, the Gators getting a 45-3 skinning by Tennessee (4-0-2) in Knoxville and the Sooners a 14-13 goring by Texas in Dallas. Those two games all but eliminated the ghastly possibility that the No. 1 spot might eventually be occupied by a team that was unable to play on New Year's Day because it was on NCAA probation. But what really made the scouts' day was the news of Michigan's loss.
The defeat, the Wolverines' second (they opened the season by losing to Notre Dame 28-24), not only forced Michigan to vacate the No. 1 address, but it also virtually guaranteed a Jan. 1 Poll Bowl that would match the two top-ranked teams. No matter what ABC's Keith Jackson might say to the contrary, the Rose Bowl, which matches the champions of the Big Ten and the Pac-10, now will play no part in deciding the national title, simply because no team from either of those conferences figures to have a good enough record to be ranked higher in the final polls than, oh, fourth or fifth. However, three bowls—the Orange, Sugar and Citrus—each have a chance of putting together a No. 1 versus No. 2 showdown.
At least give the Wolverines and rookie coach Gary Moeller credit for going down the way a top team should, trying to win instead of settling for a tie. After Michigan State quarterback Dan Enos engineered a 70-yard drive to give the Spartans a 28-21 lead with 1:59 remaining, the Wolverines stormed back to score on Elvis Grbac's pass to wideout Derrick Alexander. Moeller gathered his players around him and asked them what they wanted to do. Go for it, they said, and Moeller selected a pass play that he had saved for a "must" situation, calling for three wideouts and a back to flood the end zone.
As ace receiver Desmond (Magic) Howard began his route, he was bumped, then tripped from behind by Michigan State cornerback Eddie Brown. Howard stumbled as he turned to catch Grbac's pass, which hit him squarely on the numbers. He juggled the ball momentarily as he went down, then lost the handle on it. The officials ruled, justifiably, that Howard never had possession. But they also refused, inexplicably, to call Brown for interference, even though he owned up to it in postgame interviews.
"He [Howard] pushed me first, but I pushed him second, and it's always the second guy who gets caught," Brown said. "I thought maybe I'd see a flag. When I didn't, I got up and headed for the sideline just as fast as I could."
For Michigan State, of course, it was a matter of the breaks evening out. On Sept. 22, when Notre Dame was still No. 1, the Spartans had the Irish on the ropes in East Lansing, only to have Spartan cornerback Todd Murray let a pass bounce off his chest and into the arms of Notre Dame's Adrian Jarrell at the State two-yard line. Ryan Culver scored on the next series for a 20-19 Irish victory. It has been that kind of a season, in which so many teams are so evenly matched that a tipped pass or a bad call can cause major shifts in the rankings. Only Virginia has successfully avoided the vagaries of fate. The Cavaliers have averaged 48 points a game and ought to further pad their stats this Saturday at lowly Wake Forest.
An important thing to remember between now and Nov. 24, when bowl invitations can officially be tendered, is that the winner of the Virginia-Georgia Tech game doesn't necessarily have to be the ACC representative in the Citrus Bowl. There's an escape clause in the agreement between the ACC and the bowl that gives the conference champion the right to go to the Orange, Cotton or Sugar Bowl if it is ranked second, third or fourth and could play for the national championship. That could mean a trip to the Orange Bowl if Nebraska (6-0 and currently ranked No. 4) goes unbeaten in the Big Eight, or to the Sugar Bowl, which could have an undefeated SEC champion in either Tennessee (No. 3) or Auburn (4-0-1, No. 5). Another scenario would send the Virginia-Georgia Tech winner to the Citrus Bowl to face Miami (4-1, No. 2), back in the chase after a 28-21 opening-game loss to Brigham Young.
Last Saturday Miami warmed up for its trip to South Bend with a 34-0 win over Kansas. You could tell the Hurricanes already had Notre Dame on their minds by the way they traded shoves and punches with the Jayhawks 30 minutes before kick-off. So much for Miami Nice, right? "I'm not pleased with what happened," said Miami coach Dennis Erickson, "but it takes two to tango."
This will be the last scheduled game for the Irish and the Hurricanes, at least for the foreseeable future, and both desperately need a win to have any chance of getting another shot at being No. 1. After watching Miami whip his team worse in the game than it did in the preliminary skirmish, Kansas coach Glen Mason was asked to compare the Hurricanes with the Cavaliers, who beat Kansas 59-10 on Sept. 1. "I think Miami is a lot better than Virginia," he said. Naturally, Miami being Miami, a Hurricane player also had to pop off. "Virginia must be good to be ranked so high," said cornerback Robert Bailey, "but I think we can beat them on any given day. Any given day."
Moore and his receivers may want to file that insult away for future reference. Sure, the Cavaliers have yet to defeat anybody ranked in the Top 10, but listen to North Carolina State coach Dick Sheridan: Anybody who doesn't take them seriously is asking for trouble. After watching Moore throw for three touchdowns, including two to his favorite receiver, Herman (No Kin) Moore, and run for another, a somber Sheridan said, "Virginia beat us just about every way you can beat a football team."
The win gave the Cavaliers their best start in 41 years, their 12th consecutive victory at home and their fifth straight win over the Wolfpack. As usual, Moore was superb, completing 11 of 18 passes for 194 yards. He capped off the performance in the fourth quarter with an 83-yard touchdown strike to Herman, the longest reception of the junior wideout's career, as well as Shawn's longest pass. Quarterback Moore has either run or passed for a career total of 75 touchdowns, an ACC record, and receiver Moore has caught a total of 23 touchdown passes, a school record. And just to show that there is more to Virginia than Moore and Moore, sophomore tailback Terry Kirby blasted his way to 112 yards on 15 carries.
After the Wake Forest game, Virginia will have two weeks to get ready for Georgia Tech, a lucky break for the Cavaliers. The Yellow Jackets don't have an open Saturday, but they shouldn't have nearly as much trouble against North Carolina this week or Duke the following week as they did against Clemson on a gorgeous afternoon in Atlanta.
It didn't take a Tech engineering student to figure out that the game was going to be dominated by defense. The Yellow Jackets have a future NFL star in junior Ken Swilling, who plays a monstrous safety at 6'3" and 236 pounds, and an unstoppable pass rush built around outside linebacker Marco (Polo) Coleman, who is not to be confused with cornerback Marcus Coleman or defensive tackle Coleman Rudolph. In a 31-3 dismantling of Maryland on Oct. 6, Marco had five sacks, earning him defensive coordinator George O'Leary's "Big Stick" award—a 4½-foot polished Irish cane that the recipient carries around campus all week.
Before Saturday's game the Yellow Jackets had not allowed a rival offense to score a touchdown in 16 quarters. Clem-son's defense, led by linebacker Ed McDaniel, was almost as good. Since surrendering a Moore-to-Moore touchdown pass in the fourth quarter of the loss to Virginia, the Tigers had won four in a row while giving up only two offensive touchdowns. In addition, Clemson's offense had improved steadily behind quarterback DeChane Cameron and freshman tailback Ronald Williams.
And on those occasions when the Tigers' attack stalled, well, all coach Ken Hatfield had to do was call on Chris Gardocki, a left-footed placekicker from Stone Mountain, Ga., just outside Atlanta. In Clemson's 31-3 victory over Georgia the week before the Tech game, Gardocki kicked four field goals, tying the school record and giving him nine in a row, three of them 50 yards or longer.
On Saturday the Clemson defense bent first, allowing Tech to take a 7-0 lead when quarterback Shawn Jones engineered a 72-yard scoring drive in the first quarter. Then the Yellow Jacket defense lived up to its reputation, setting up another touchdown on the Tigers' next possession when linebacker Chris Simmons jarred the ball loose from Cameron and Rudolph recovered at the Clemson 13. A 38-yard Gardocki field goal in the first quarter made it 14-3 at halftime.
In the second half Ross went to a more conservative attack, hoping to wear Clemson down by keeping the ball on the ground. Instead, the Tech offense fizzled miserably, time and again giving up the ball, either on downs or turnovers. Clemson controlled the ball for more than 23 minutes in the second half, running 58 plays, while Tech had possession for only 6:51 and 18 plays. Hatfield kept sending in fresh backs (five had at least 12 carries, led by Williams's 108 yards on 17 attempts), but the Tech defense held when it mattered, yielding only three more Gardocki field goals as the Tigers kept chipping away until the score was 14—12 early in the fourth quarter.
Then came the play that won it for Tech. Ross sent in Kevin Tisdel, a sophomore walk-on, to receive the kickoff. Tisdel had asked for the assignment earlier in the week, even though he had played only one down in his college career. "My legs were shaking so bad," he said after the game, "that I didn't know if I could move." He not only moved when he caught the ball in the end zone, he went left behind a wall of blockers, cut to mid-field, dodged a tackier at the Clemson 45 and went to the 13 before being hauled down from behind. His 87-yard return set up the T.J. Edwards five-yard touchdown run that gave Tech a 21-12 lead.
The Yellow Jacket defense then stopped Clemson with a glorious goal line stand, though it finally surrendered a touchdown after the offense coughed up the ball yet again. Clemson's Cameron scored on a three-yard keeper to make the score 21-19, and when the Yellow Jackets regained possession, they were foiled by a dropped third-down pass and nearly done in by an 11-yard punt that put the Tigers in position to win. With a minute left, Hatfield had the choice of going for a first down on fourth-and-four at the Tech 43 or calling on Gardocki to try a 60-yard field goal with the wind at his back.
He went with Gardocki, whose boot was about five yards short. "I wanted to drive it," Gardocki said, "but I got under it too much." When the kick failed, the weary Tech defenders staggered back to the bench, and the collective sigh of relief from the stands nearly registered on weather maps in Charlottesville.
"I'm hurting," said Tech linebacker Calvin Tiggle, whose team-high 24 tackles included a big one on fourth down during the goal line stand. "I've never been this tired after a game. My legs were cramping up on me, and my shoulder was hurting. I thought for sure they were going to make that last kick. I was on my knees praying."
Tech and Virginia may be children of a lesser god, but suddenly they're in a position that even Notre Dame would envy. And guess what? Basketball practice began last week, but nobody at Virginia or Tech seemed to care much. Let Duke and Carolina go crazy about hoops. At Virginia and Georgia Tech there are more important things to get excited about right now, such as playing for the national championship on New Year's Day.
Virginia's Gary Steele found N.C. State's end zone, but his helmet and mouthpiece didn't.
KEITH GRAHAM/ROANOKE TIMES & WORLD-NEWS
Shawn Moore aims to lead the Cavs to their first national title.
Tripped by Brown (8) on the two-point try, Howard couldn't hold Grbac's perfect pass.
Edwards (39) and his fellow Yellow Jackets were buzzing after his winning touchdown.