As minutes melted into seconds and the final box score became increasingly etched in stone, thousands of fans in Scott Stadium jumped to their feet and began to jockey for position, eager to stay a step ahead of the rest of the crowd as the inevitable rush began.
They left their game programs, their funnel cake plates and even a few pairs of Ray-Ban knockoffs on the ground behind them - a small price to pay for securing a coveted position at the front of the stampede. All the RMC Events rent-a-cops in the world couldn't have stopped it - even the words of the public address announcer went unheeded.
Virginia fans fled to the exits en masse after cornerback David Amerson's interception return put N.C. State up 28-14 with six minutes and change left in a game in which three touchdown drives took a combined 31 seconds.
They moved with an urgency almost identical to when they flooded the field after the Cavaliers knocked off then-No. 12 Georgia Tech last weekend. The message they sent to Virginia's players and coaches, however, could not have been more different.
"Yeah, I was walking back to the sidelines; I saw the fans walking out," quarterback David Watford said. "Hey, that's their choice, [but] we still had the opportunity to win the game."
Incredibly, the miserable migration could have been even worse. A paltry crowd of 46,030 attended the game - less than 75 percent of Scott Stadium's 61,500 capacity and fewer than the 47,692 who celebrated slaying the Georgia Tech goliath last week.
"I didn't notice what happened in the stands," coach Mike London said politically after the game. "I'm worried about what's happening on the field. We can't control what happens in the stands."
Coach London and Co. can't simply flip a switch and transform the crowds into a Scott Stadium-sized edition of Cameron Crazies, but the coaches and players undoubtedly expected and certainly deserved better from a fanbase so starved for signature wins that it apparently can no longer even recognize when one smacks it right in the face. The dismal display by a fanbase already characterized as unfaithful and apathetic was damning on a number of accounts.
Entering a winnable ACC matchup against the Wolfpack, Virginia passed the "what-have-you-done-for-me-lately" test with flying colors. The Cavaliers boasted a 4-2 record, their best start since beginning the 2007 season 7-1.
As highlights of students storming the field after upsetting of the Yellow Jackets quickly became a "SportsCenter" staple Saturday night, even people who couldn't tell a pigskin from a bowling pin could tell you that the entire school was on a collective football high. With tough tests against Miami, Florida State and Virginia Tech still to come, a win against the Wolfpack - another borderline bowl team in the ACC - was one of Virginia's best chances to lower its magic number for postseason eligibility.
"You'd hope that in any program you'd have a lot of fan support from the people you call fans," quarterback Michael Rocco said. "We try not to notice it, but it does have an effect, just seeing the fans go. But ... we've still got to play football and we want to win just as bad as the fans want to win."
Among the Virginia players, Rocco was hardly going rogue by voicing his frustrations at the demonstrated lack of fan faith for a team which mere days ago gave many of them - myself included - the thrill of their four years at U.Va. by beating Georgia Tech and exorcising any lingering demons from the tail end of Al Groh's Cavalier coaching tenure. Linebacker and leading tackler Steve Greer stressed, "You gotta try not to notice that," but he conceded that he felt the team deserved better fan support. Watford expressed similar sentiments: "I think we have [earned better fan support], but we have to continue to win. That's how we're going to get more fan support. You want to have the fans that stick with you through thick and thin, good and bad. But I just want to win. As long as we continue to win I know we'll have the fan support."
After throwing three interceptions against the Wolfpack, Watford stressed that he and the team need to "have a short memory" as they try to rebound from such a deflating encore effort.\nIf Watford wants a crash course in amnesia, however, he need not look further than Virginia's own fans, as students and alumni alike showed it in bunches when they streamed to bars or their cars one week after they reveled in a field-storming success.
"People want to feel good about the program, and we will," London said. "These are tremendous learning pains. Coming off the euphoria of a really good game, and then you see how devastating turnovers can be."
London has emphasized the importance of changing the culture and perception of Virginia football, and he admitted as much after last week's homecoming win, which even the team's harshest critics termed a seminal step in the right direction.
But Saturday's sorry showing - not necessarily on the field, but certainly off the field by the fans - means that London's last two weeks of potential program rebuilding may simply have been a case of one step forward, two steps back. If the Cavaliers don't go bowling for a fourth consecutive season, this will be the game Virginia fans remember as the one that got away - assuming they care enough to even remember it at all.