Come November, you expect this type of game, a heart-stopping, cliff-hanging, five-star, four-act drama on the football field. You expect it in Ann Arbor, Norman, Okla., South Bend or Miami. But last Saturday there was a true gem between a couple of unexpectedly undefeated teams in, of all places, Charlottesville, Va. Locals dubbed it the Brawl for It All and the Thrilla in Charlottesvilla, and darned if the Virginia-Georgia Tech showdown didn't live up to its billing. It featured a heroic comeback and a last-gasp field goal. It had a Clash of Titans matchup between future pros Ken Swilling, Tech's linebacker-sized free safety, and Herman Moore, Virginia's brilliant wide receiver, and a grand upstaging of one quarterbacking Shawn, Virginia's Moore, by the other, Georgia Tech's Jones.
At stake for Georgia Tech was the Atlantic Coast Conference title, a trip to the Florida Citrus Bowl and a chance to regain some respect after a humbling 13-13 tie with North Carolina on Oct. 20, the only stain on a 7-0-1 record. The Cavaliers came into Saturday's game 7-0 for the first time since 1949 and a consensus No. 1 for the first time ever. A victory would put them in position to play the likes of Notre Dame in a bowl to determine the national title, and might also help to nail down the Heisman Trophy for quarterback Moore. The football team's performance had been "unfathomable," as one student put it, and, indeed, it proved too good to be true. With seven seconds left in the game, Scott Sisson's 37-yard field goal attempt bisected the uprights, giving Georgia Tech a 41-38 win and lancing the bubble of Virginia's dream season.
The most eagerly awaited football weekend in the state's history had a disquieting opening act. At least one embittered soul apparently did not want the game to take place. In the wee hours of Saturday morning, someone ignited kerosene at midfield of Scott Stadium, necessitating an emergency graft of 576 square feet of AstroTurf. Had the arsonist done greater damage, there might not have been the epic battle between Swilling and Herman Moore, which resulted in a lopsided victory for the 6'5" Virginia receiver. Rusty from a sprained ankle that had idled him for two games, Swilling was victimized on five of Moore's nine catches. By game's end, Moore, a former ACC high-jump champion, had put together an astounding 234 yards receiving. Equally remarkable was his having the good grace to say nothing when Swilling approached him on the field after the game to say, "Hey, man, keep your chin up." Moore, having collected a season's worth of receiving yards over Swilling's head, simply nodded politely.
Having no trouble keeping his chin up—he had rushed for three touchdowns and thrown for 344 yards, after all—was Shawn Moore, the losing quarterback, who in defeat abdicated his Heisman front-runner's status. Moore sought out Swilling after the game. "How you doing, big man?" he asked, choosing his greeting carefully. Had he said "Nice game, big man" to Swilling, the words would have rung false. The Tech safety had played-a dismal game. Moore also sang the praises of Jones, describing him as "an Andre Ware with sprinter's speed." In fact, the two quarterbacks' passing statistics were nearly a toss-up, Moore completing 18 of 28 throws for 344 yards and a touchdown while Jones was 17 of 29 for 257 yards and a pair of scores.
In all, it was an ugly day for the defenses, but the Yellow Jackets' finest moment came on a goal line stand on Virginia's next-to-last possession. The Cavaliers had a first-and-goal on the Tech one-yard line and came away with three points. Tailback Nikki Fisher was stopped for no gain, a penalty pushed the Wahoos back to the six, then Herman Moore caught a short pass that put Virginia back on the one. On third down, Shawn Moore's apparent scoring strike to tight end Aaron Mundy was wiped out by an illegal-procedure penalty—Virginia had only six men on the line of scrimmage. Shawn then threw incomplete to Herman in the end zone. Facing fourth and goal from the six, coach George Welsh elected to kick a field goal, trusting that his defense would stop Georgia Tech, though it had shown scant ability to accomplish that feat.
So Rambling Wreck coach Bobby Ross caught a break. Perhaps he was due. Ross is a walking advertisement for perseverance and the healing power of ice cream. And for a few hard years he was the Joe Btfsplk of coaches, trailed by a cloud of bad luck since his final days at Maryland.
Ross's first four seasons at College Park will probably go down as the Golden Era of Terrapin football. He put two quarterbacks, Boomer Esiason and Frank Reich, in the NFL, won three ACC titles and went to four bowls. In 1986, with the entire athletic program in chaos—not the least as a result of basketball star Len Bias's death by drug overdose—Ross left Maryland to become an assistant coach with the Buffalo Bills. When Georgia Tech called a month later, Ross apologized to the Bills for changing his mind and headed for Atlanta to replace Bill Curry, who had moved on to Alabama. Last week, Ross admitted that he spent much of his first year asking himself, "What the hell am I doing here?"
Mostly, he was losing football games. Tech went 5-17 in Ross's first two seasons, dropping 14 straight ACC games in the process. After the Yellow Jackets' 48-14 loss at Duke in '87, the scoreboard at Wallace Wade Stadium read WELCOME TO THE BASEMENT, TEKKIES. It Wasn't Only the mounting losses that were getting Ross down. During his first summer in Atlanta, he lost nine players to what he calls "academic attrition." On top of that, his early-morning meetings and mandatory breakfasts proved too strict for some of the older players, who openly challenged Ross at practices. Shane Curry, now a defensive end at Miami, transferred out to escape the calculus required of all Tech students, even management majors. Defensive back Riccardo Ingram, one of Ross's best players, was found to have signed with an agent and lost his eligibility. Tight end Chris Caudle drowned in a boating accident.
Amid the despair, Ross experienced an epiphany of sorts. After that season's 10th game, a particularly dispiriting 28-24 loss to Wake Forest that had Ross contemplating retirement, he told his wife, Alice, to go ahead home without him. Says Ross, "I just drove around Atlanta for three hours, eating ice cream, regenerating and rededicating myself. Since then, I've had problems, but I don't let them consume me. I've had the horse blinders on."
Fate continued to test Ross's resolve. He lost a granddaughter, 15-month-old Rebecca Ross, to heart disease. His '88 team went 3-8, after which three of his players were involved in an ugly brawl at a pizza parlor. Kevin Salisbury, a 6'4", 245-pound linebacker, broke a woman's nose with a punch, while Mike Mooney, 6'7", 325 pounds, and Jim Lavin, 6'5", 275 pounds, joined in the fray. Mooney and Lavin, who start on Tech's offensive line, pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct and were fined. Salisbury pleaded no contest to battery and was suspended for three games. Mooney and Lavin were briefly suspended by the university, but neither missed a single game. Ross was widely criticized for an unseemly haste to return them to active status.
After sputtering to an 0-3 start last season, the Rambling Wreck arrived gratefully at an open date. To Ross, the losses were more galling than those of 1987 or '88, because he was now losing mostly with his players—not those inherited from Curry. Unable to explain their team's futility, the offensive coaches scouted the defense, and the defensive coaches were asked to appraise the Tech attack. Ross and his staff decided to rejigger the defense to get more of a pass rush. It worked. After collecting not a single sack through the first three games, the Yellow Jackets finished the season with 26. On offense, Jones, the redshirt freshman quarterback, settled down and made fewer ill-considered throws. Tech won seven of its last eight games, with its final loss coming against Duke on Oct. 28. The Yellow Jackets have not lost since.
That streak was in peril for more than 57 minutes on Saturday. Scoring on their first three possessions, the Cavaliers quickly led 13-0. Then the brawl turned into a kind of stud-poker hand between the two quarterbacking Shawns. I'll see your six and raise you six. With five minutes gone in the second quarter, Jones turned a broken third-and-six play into a 23-yard touchdown scramble. Score: 13-7. On Virginia's next possession, Moore hurled himself over the goal line on a one-yard sneak, then hit Herman for a two-point conversion to put the Wahoos up 21-7. On Tech's next series, Jones threw three straight completions, the third connecting with flanker Jerry Gilchrist for a glorious 43-yard bomb that pulled Tech to 21-14. Moore and Virginia came right back, the quarterback scoring on a six-yard draw. 28-14.
Jones ended the first half by throwing an interception to cornerback Tony Covington, but he was otherwise keeping right up with the Heisman candidate. Jones had quit football in the summer before his sophomore year at Thomasville (Ga.) High School. "I kind of got tired of it." he says. "Then I decided I didn't like sitting out." So he rejoined—which no doubt pleased his father, Andrew, Thomasville's defensive line coach—in time to start at quarterback in the school's opener. As a senior, Jones was courted by Arizona, Clemson, Georgia, Alabama and others, but he chose Georgia Tech after Ross promised him he would play quarterback. "I remember telling one of the Alabama coaches I wanted to play quarterback, and he got this sort of look" Jones recalls. "He told me that because I was such a great athlete I could end up playing anywhere. Everything he told me after that went in one ear and out the other."
After Jones's pass was picked off by Covington, the Virginia defenders left the field in a festive spirit, laughing and exchanging high fives. "They were a pretty cocky bunch," said Mooney. It didn't quite add up. "After the first quarter, they never really stopped us. We were getting a good push and picking up five yards pretty much whenever we wanted it."
Shawn Moore fumbled on the first play of the second half, and the Yellow Jackets quickly converted the goof into seven on a 12-yard flanker reverse by Gilchrist. Mooney was right. Virginia's defense was so pliable that, by comparison, Tech's was looking like the 1985 Chicago Bears. Tech tailback William Bell picked up 102 yards, 83 of them in the second half, mainly between the tackles. After the first quarter the Cavaliers forced one punt. The Tech offensive line punched hole after gaping hole in the Cavaliers' front five.
Tech evened the game at 28-28 with a marvelous juggling catch by Emmett Merchant in the third quarter, and it was tied again at 35-35. Then Sisson kicked his first field goal, a 32-yarder to give Tech a 38-35 edge. With 2:39 to go, it was fourth-and-goal on the Tech six for the Cavaliers, and Welsh sent in the field goal unit over the protests of some of his players. "I definitely wanted to go for it," said Herman Moore, who made the point that even if the offense had been stopped on the one-yard line, "we keep them down there deep and force them to kick it."
"I would never do it differently," said Welsh of the successful field goal attempt. "There were two and a half minutes left. We had three timeouts. Stop them once, make them throw it into the ground, get a holding penalty, everything's in our favor."
Everything but, as Jones observed later, the fact that "they hadn't stopped us all day." As the Yellow Jackets took over after the kickoff at their own 24, Jones exhorted his teammates in the huddle to "dig down deep." His first call was a gutsy one, "seven-seventy-two," with tailback Bell running a short post pattern. "They did a nice job disguising that coverage [a two-deep zone]," said Ross, "and I was praying Shawn would pick it up."
No sweat, Coach. Having spied free safety Keith McMeans cheating toward the receiver side of the field—a tip-off that the Wahoos were in a zone—Jones feathered a 23-yard strike to Bell, who leaped, he later estimated, "a few feet" in order to catch the ball with his body instead of just his hands. On the next play, Bell rushed inside—and recovered his own fumble—for a 13-yard gain. Two more completions put Tech on Virginia's 20. Moments later, after Sisson kicked his second field goal of the day, jubilant students back in Atlanta stormed empty Grant Field and tore down its goal posts.
In the Tech dressing room senior defensive tackle Jerimiah McClary interrupted Ross's postgame speech to give one of his own. "Coach," said McClary, "this week the seniors decided to give the game ball to someone special to you, and special to us." As 87-year-old Leonard (Bus) Ross shuffled forward to accept his trophy, his son, the coach, stood in the background, hoping no one would notice the mist in his eyes.
Bus Ross is a tough old codger. This past spring, he had sextuple-bypass heart surgery. It did not prevent him from traveling the 75 miles from Richmond to see Saturday's game. Ross speculated that the Thrilla might be the last football game his father attends. If that is so, Bus will count himself lucky. He has already been around long enough to see his son introduce to yet another campus another Golden Era of football.