Cavaliers, Fighting Illini continue series for first game outside of the Sunshine State

uva footballThis coming Saturday morning (11 a.m. ET kickoff) Illinois will face an ACC opponent for the 10th time, including two postseason games against Virginia.

The Illini have enjoyed nothing but success against the Cavaliers, defeating Virginia in a pair of bowl games during the 1990s.

I know this only too well, as I covered both games. Both ending with lopsided wins for the Illini.

Virginia entered both bowl matchups with Illinois having traveled different paths during the regular season.

1990 Florida Citrus Bowl

This was the Cavaliers’ first New Year’s Day bowl game. The game was played Jan. 1, 1990, at the Florida Citrus Bowl. Illinois (9-2) beat a 10-1 Virginia team, 31-21.  Illinois jumped on a rattled Virginia team early when the Cavaliers coughed up the football (opening drive early). After the turnover, Illini All-American quarterback Jeff George connected on a TD pass to give UI an early 7-0 lead.

Virginia regrouped and tied the game briefly. Illinois scored both times in the second quarter to take a 17-7 lead at intermission. An opening third quarter scoring drive by the Fighting Illini made it 24-7, and the Cavaliers never recovered.

The game started off in a slight drizzle that progressed to a steady rain over the course of the contest.

Early in the third quarter, a brief altercation between George and Virginia defensive end Ray Savage took place. Savage, who later had his number retired by UVa., obviously frustrated by the Illini dominance, drilled George to the Citrus Bowl turf. A late-hit call on Savage resulted in George retaliating by finding Savage and stuffing the ball in his face. Offsetting penalties were called.

I was on the sideline doing some photo work at the time of the game, and Virginia coach George Welsh had to be restrained – not towards the officials, but towards Savage for the late hit. After the game, Welsh said the play “was very uncharacteristic of Ray.”

Savage (when your name is Savage, you were born to be a football player) lived up to his name. Named all All-American in 1989, he was one of the fiercest and most intense defensive players in Virginia history. Later in the week we’ll get “the rest of the story” from Savage himself.

I stayed on the sidelines for the remainder of the game. The most vivid image I have of the game was of blood and mud. This was well before the safety/health protocols in today’s game. Illinois won the contest, but trust me, they took some wounds back to The Land of Lincoln.

Virginia and Duke shared the regular season ACC title in 1989, each finishing 6-1. The Cavaliers clobbered Duke 49-28 in Scott Stadium, but suffered its only conference loss the next week at Clemson 34-20.

1999 Micronpc.com Bowl

Virginia is still 0-for-Florida in bowl season. In a 63-21 beatdown to Illinois, the paper I was working for, The News-Virginian, fittingly headlined the game story as “Annihilation.com.”

Ouch!

On a sweltering Dec. 30 night in South Florida, Virginia experienced its fifth loss in five bowl games in the Sunshine State.

How lopsided? Illinois scored nine touchdowns on 13 possessions. The Illini defense held the Cavaliers Thomas Jones, the nation’s No. 3 rusher, to 110 yards on the ground. Held, you may ask? In a 63-21 shellacking, most of Jones’ efforts came in what many would call “garbage time.”

The most memorable part of the game for me was easy, the postgame press conference with Welsh.

I took a seat beside (at that time) a relatively unknown Miami Herald columnist named Dan Le Batard.  The first question from a media member towards coach Welsh was direct: “What went wrong tonight coach?”

Welsh, looking a bit dazzled by the question, replied, “I have no explanation. I’m embarrassed by that performance and absolutely bewildered.”

Le Batard turned to me and said, “That’s your head coach? If he doesn’t have an explanation, who the hell does?”

I told Le Batard, “That’s just George’s way.” Le Batard, in his now well-known persona, replied saying, “Ask him what his name is.”

The bowl loss capped an up-and-down season for the Cavaliers as they finished 7-5. The highlight of the year may have been a wild shootout win at Brigham Young 45-40, avoiding a monumental collapse after leading early 28-6.

One last note on the Annihilation, err, the Micronpc.com Bowl. The game was played in Pro Player Stadium, which about a week later hosted the national championship game between Virginia Tech and Florida State.

On a sidenote, Cavalier fans making the trip to Provo learned after arriving that it was against the law to serve a drink at a restaurant or bar before 11:30 a.m.

So, this Saturday morning in Charlottesville, this storied rivalry, OK, that’s a stretch, between UVA and Illinois picks up where it left off over two decades ago. Somewhere Ray Savage and Jeff George will be tuned in, and most likely George Welsh as well.

Story by Scott German


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