To be blunt, this isn't where Virginia wanted to be. The minute last season ended, the Cavaliers were projected as a favorite for the ACC championship -- and thus the Bowl Championship Series. Coach Al Groh had his eye on the ultimate prize: a national title.
So when preseason camp began in August, a return trip to the Continental Tire Bowl would have been considered a kick in the teeth, if not a yard lower. Yet on another perfect December afternoon in the Queen City, Groh gleefully took another water-cooler bath and savored the sweet taste of postseason victory.
For the first time since 1995-96, and for only the second time in school history, Virginia won a bowl game in back-to-back seasons. And for a program aspiring for bigger and better things, it's a strong beginning.
"We came down here with the theme that this was a very, very, very, very important game," said Groh, his gray sweatshirt almost completely soaked. "We had to bring everything that we had. Everything we put into the season had to show up today."
Actually, more. Virginia's defense had been up-and-down through a 12-game regular season but was never better than Saturday. The Cavs (8-5) held Pitt to half its per-game scoring average and gave up only a field goal in the second half. All-Milky Way receiver Larry Fitzgerald had five fairly meaningless catches and saw his 18-game streak with at least one touchdown reception end. Virginia sacked quarterback Rod Rutherford five times and made a goal-line stand that, though early, proved pivotal.
Groh likes to say that whoever gets to the quarterback more and runs the ball better in the fourth quarter usually wins. On this day, at least, he was right. The Cavs had 95 of their 196 rushing yards in the fourth quarter.
And when Pitt (8-5) took over at its 48-yard line trailing by a touchdown with 2:20 remaining -- overtime, anyone? -- defensive end Brennan Schmidt broke through with a well-timed sack that knocked the ball from Rutherford's hands and into linebacker Kai Parham's.
Virginia made enough mistakes to lose. Twice the Cavs came up empty inside the Pitt 15-yard line -- first when an ill-conceived screen pass was stuffed on fourth-and-1, then when Matt Schaub was intercepted in the end zone. Dead-ball penalties on linebacker Ahmad Brooks and safety Jamaine Winborne, who had otherwise solid games, kept Panther drives alive. But the Cavs continually bounced back, and that was good enough.
"We just found the ingredients to win the game," tailback Wali Lundy said.
"Neither team played to the best of their abilities," tailback Alvin Pearman added, "but we capitalized slightly more than they did to give us the edge."
The turning point of the game came early, after U.Va. punted on its opening possession. Pitt had driven from its 30 to the Cavaliers' 1, where Rutherford's quarterback sneak had set up first-and-goal. On first down, tackle Kwakou Robinson upended 245-pound fullback Lousaka Polite for no gain. Then, Robinson stuffed Rutherford -- again for no gain. On third down, Pitt went back to Polite. But Parham was there, and it was fourth-and-goal.
With Fitzgerald inexplicably on the sideline -- at 6-foot-3, he's significantly taller than any of U.Va.'s cornerbacks -- Rutherford handed off to tailback Brandon Miree. Brooks shook a block and made the most important of his 12 stops for a 1-yard loss.
"That did a lot for us," Winborne said. "When they went downfield the way they did, I know a lot of people were thinking, 'It's gonna be one of those games.' "
Exactly 42 seconds after Brooks tackled Miree, Schaub hit tight end Heath Miller on a seam route for a 52-yard touchdown. Your basic 14-point swing.
"Huge momentum swing," Schaub said. "Just huge."
Panthers coach Walt Harris also saw it that way.
"The difference between winning and losing was three or four plays," he said. "They just made fewer mistakes than we did."
Having routed West Virginia in the first Tire Bowl, Virginia is now an established dynasty there. But, truth be told, Groh hopes the Cavs won't be back next year to three-peat.
"We were real glad to be here, but we were aiming for the Sugar Bowl," he said. "It's important to win in the postseason if you want to be an important team. That was one of the reasons that made it such an important game for our team."