George Welsh's Cavaliers entered Saturday's home opener with Wake Forest looking more like a horde of sick children than a football team -- a defense devastated by injury, a secondary burned alive against Clemson and a passing offense unable to strike down the field.
But the Cav coach, who has confronted more than his fair share of adversity in his 18 years in Charlottesville, managed to dig deep enough into the medicine chest and unearth the solution to all Cavalier ills: Thomas Jones.
In front of the record-breaking crowd of 50,000 at the revamped Scott Stadium, Jones did his best Heisman pose -- juking, sliding, cutting and steamrolling his way to 164 rushing yards and three scores in a 35-7 Cavalier triumph. Such a performance from Jones was hardly a surprise.
"It was obviously his night -- all the superlatives you can find," Welsh said. "I tell you what, he's awfully good. There isn't anybody better in the country. There can't be. There were some great runs out there."
Jones did not waste any time dissecting the Deacon defense. On Virginia's initial drive, the Cav offense promptly marched 63 yards to the Wake 27 before Deac safety DaLawn Parrish nabbed a Dan Ellis pass.
But after Wake kicker Matthew Burdick's 46-yard field goal sailed wide right, the workmanlike Cav offense punched the clock, with Jones wearing the hard-hat in the backfield.
It was Jones between the tackles for four yards, then spinning to the outside and eluding containment for 19 more. The Big Stone Gap, Va., native carried a half dozen times on that drive alone, capping the foray with a 15-yard sprint to paydirt to give the Cavaliers a 7-0 edge 12 minutes into the game.
Against North Carolina and Clemson, Virginia was manhandled in the opening half by a combined score of 29-3. But Virginia made it an evening of reversing trends, attaining a first-quarter lead that it never relinquished.
"Getting on the scoreboard in the first half -- getting a couple right away helped us a lot," Welsh said. "We had been struggling to get on the board."
But the Cavs were not done. Three touchdowns and 18 minutes later, Virginia took to the locker room with a 28-7 lead, while Jim Caldwell's Demon Deacons, who amassed over 500 total yards just one week ago at Army, were left to examine the carnage.
Jones collected 94 rushing yards in the first half to bury Wake before the Deacons ever had a passing thought of making it a football game.
Perhaps his most memorable scamper, however, came via Ellis on a simple screen pass that Jones transformed into an unforgettable 34-yard reception. Ellis swung it out to Jones, who collected it at the Wake 49, darted down the left sideline, then cut the grain of the field like a butcher knife before plowing his way to the 15.
"I felt really good going through the game," Jones said. "I just wanted to play better than I played last week. I just wanted to be more explosive and make more plays."
But Jones wasn't the only playmaker. After two weeks of feeling out exactly what he had to work with on offense, Welsh unveiled a few hidden wrinkles in the playbook, notably a reverse to wide receiver Tavon Mason for a 31-yard score. Welsh then foreshadowed even more diversity.
"There's more there," Welsh said. "We've got more to come. You have to pick your spots -- you can't just run triple reverses and flea flickers and all that stuff and think it's going to work just because you called it. Gary [Tranquill] picked exactly the right spot for that call."
Ellis demonstrated marked improvement as well. The Exton, Pa., product completed just 50 percent of his passes to start the year, but Saturday showed some polish in only his third career start. Ellis connected on 19 of his 25 passes, with the one interception and a four-yard touchdown hook-up with Kevin Coffey. Virginia finished with 467 total yards to extend its winning streak over Wake Forest to 16.
"I'm pleased," Welsh said. "I think the kids came back, played hard, played with a lot of emotion."
Not to be outdone was the Cav defense, spearheaded by the relentless Shannon Taylor, who lined up primarily at his customary outside linebacker spot but did sporadically convert to rush end. Taylor was in on a pair of sacks and catalyzed an undermanned defense without the services of tri-captain end Travis Griffith.
"He's one guy that can rush the passer for us with some quickness and power," Welsh said. "If he can get two or three sacks a game for us, that will help, especially next week."
Virginia did suffer another injury on defense late in the opening stanza when the stalwart of the front four, tackle Maurice Anderson, went down with a sprained knee. Anderson was helped to the locker room by trainers and will be reevaluated this week.
The rest of the defense was up to the challenge. Virginia held the ACC's leading rusher, Morgan Kane, to 65 tough yards on 20 carries while limiting the run-happy Deacs to 80 yards on the ground.
"We played with some emotion," cornerback Tim Spruill said. "This is the first time we've played with some fire and some emotion as a team"