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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.