The date and city remain the same. New Year’s Eve in Atlanta. The name has changed from Georgia’s favorite fruit to America’s favorite fowl. The venue has moved from the outdoor site of Hank Aaron’s 715th home run to the indoor site of the Dallas Cowboys’ fourth Super Bowl championship.
Indeed, Virginia’s Chick-fil-A Bowl matchup with Auburn at the Georgia Dome takes many of us back to not only the Cavaliers’ first postseason invitation but also the most important year in the program’s annals.
If you’re a newbie, climb aboard the wayback machine for a history lesson.
It was 1984, George Welsh’s third season as head coach, the year of Ronald Reagan’s re-election. Virginia had never played in a bowl, finished among the ACC’s top two or defeated a top-15 opponent. The Cavaliers hadn’t won more than seven games since 1952 or been ranked in the Associated Press’ season-end poll since 1951.
All that was about to change.
Following a 6-5 finish in 1983 that earned Welsh ACC coach of the year honors, optimism enveloped the program. Then came a season-opener more one-sided than Reagan-Mondale.
Third-ranked Clemson, a team Virginia had never beaten, torched the Cavaliers 55-0 at Scott Stadium. Even for a program renowned for losing, the margin was epic. It was, and remains, Virginia’s most lopsided ACC defeat.
The Cavaliers would not lose again for two-and-a-half months.
They won at Welsh’s alma-mater and former employer, Navy. Thanks to Welsh’s daring fourth-and-1, Don Majkowski-to-John Ford post route, they won at Virginia Tech for the first time since 1970. They tied No. 20 Georgia Tech and, in early November, authored their signature victory – on the road.
West Virginia was ranked 12th and had just defeated nemesis Penn State for the first time in 30 years. Virginia was 2-52-2 all-time against ranked teams and was hoping to impress scouts from the Atlanta-based Peach Bowl.
That the Cavaliers did, and then some. Led by fullback Antonio Rice, they dominated the Mountaineers 27-7.
A 45-0 whitewash of North Carolina State the following week elevated Virginia into the AP poll at No. 19, though a subsequent tie with North Carolina and loss to Maryland knocked the Cavaliers out of the rankings.
Still, a 7-2-2 regular season and second-place finish to Maryland in the ACC was cause for celebration, as was a Peach Bowl date with Big Ten runner-up Purdue, led by Jim Everett, the No. 3 pick of the 1986 NFL draft and the first Boilermakers quarterback to beat Michigan, Notre Dame and Ohio State in the same season.
Everett threw three first-half touchdown passes against Virginia, including a 17-yarder to Menchville High graduate Jeff Price. Purdue led 24-14 at intermission.
Then the Cavaliers showed their chops.
An offensive line coached by Tom O’Brien, now N.C. State’s head coach, began opening holes for tailback Howard Petty. A secondary coached by Frank Spaziani, now Boston College’s big whistle, deployed a nickel package that slowed Everett and included Hampton High alum Kevin Gould, pressed into duty at safety when All-ACC Lester Lyles sustained a thigh bruise.
With the game knotted at 24 midway through the fourth quarter, Virginia faced fourth-and-goal from inside the 1. Welsh declined to gamble, took a delay penalty and watched Kenny Stadlin of Hampton High kick the go-ahead field goal from 22 yards.
“You’ve got to go ahead and make them beat you,” Welsh said afterward.
The Boilermakers had one final possession. But Ray Daly, a transfer from Navy and the only Cavalier with bowl experience, intercepted Everett for the second time.
Virginia ran out the clock to win 27-24. Fans spilled onto the Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium field and didn’t leave until the PA announcer threatened to turn out the lights. Petty and Daly won offensive and defensive MVPs, respectively, and the Cavaliers finished No. 20 in the AP poll.
“It says a lot for this team to face the second-place team from the Big Ten and dominate them,” Petty said. “That’s what we had to do in the second half.”
Welsh coached another 16 years at Virginia. The Cavaliers played in 11 more bowls under Welsh and enjoyed five more top-25 seasons.
This New Year’s Eve marks the first bowl of Mike London’s brief coaching tenure. Virginia fans can only hope it’s as memorable and bodes as well.
I can be reached at 247-4636 or by e-mail at email@example.com. Follow me at twitter.com/DavidTeelatDP
Teel Time: Chick-fil-A Bowl stirs memories of UVa's first bowl and most important season
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