If he still were alive, Howard Cosell would have a field day with the Virginia defense.
"Down goes Pope!" the raspy voice of American sports would bellow. "Down goes Griffith! Down goes Stukes! And now down goes Harris!"
But Cosell-comedy aside, there is nothing too humorous about the current state of the Virginia defense. To describe the unit as the "walking wounded" would be inaccurate because, well, many of them aren't walking.
"Between the suspensions and all the injuries, we're hurt, probably as bad as we've been in a long time - going back to 1986," Virginia coach George Welsh said. "Hopefully we can get them all back - if not this week, then next week."
The problems begin where the defense starts: on the line.
Tri-captain and defensive end Travis Griffith, whose three sacks in 1998 led all returnees, scratched his way through six plays Saturday before succumbing to unceasing pain in his ankle and lower back. That ankle injury, Welsh announced yesterday, has Griffith sidelined indefinitely.
Couple that with the loss of starting defensive tackle Monsanto Pope to a ruptured MCL and a seemingly solid core begins to disintegrate. Add in tackle Maurice Anderson's battle with turf toe, end Devin "Boo" Battle's injuries, and end Darryl Sanders' academic ineligibility, and a once confident Welsh is now on the phone with the White House requesting emergency relief.
Last Saturday, the dissipated line lacked the bodies and the firepower to slow Clemson's quick strike offense. Tiger quarterback Brandon Streeter had the luxury of standing in the pocket for what seemed like hours and pick apart the Cavaliers. The result: a 33-14 debacle and a return trip to the drawing board.
"Mentally we weren't ready to play," Welsh said. "We just didn't do a job - maybe the game plan wasn't good either."
And then there's the secondary. Welsh expected cornerback Dwayne Stukes and safety Antwan Harris to lead the defensive backs. Neither suited up against Clemson, as Stukes was hampered by a thigh bruise and Harris by a sore hamstring. With the two veterans watching from home, the Cav secondary looked extremely green. During Saturday's loss, three first years and two upperclassmen with virtually no game experience were all in at once.
With several key contributors now spectators, Welsh has been on a virtual scavenger hunt in search of healthy bodies. He now confronts the very real prospect of calling on rookies Colin McWeeny, George Stanley and Antonio Mayfield.
This brings him to yet another dilemma - one that he hoped he would not have to consider with the expected depth along the defensive line: whether or not to return outside linebacker Shannon Taylor to rush end, the spot he held in 1997.
"I wish we could rush him more," Welsh said. "But it would have to be at linebacker - we're too thin to move him."
Anderson, the team's leading tackler and the one constant on the line, knows that Saturday's meeting with Wake Forest could make or break the season.
"Can we go on after this?" Anderson asked. "We should get excited and say, 'We're going to turn the season around. This week will really be the stepping stone.'"
Taylor has a warning for the Deacons, though: Don't pick on a hurt dog - it might just bite back.
"We're ready to play in front of the home crowd," Taylor said. "Wake Forest picked the wrong week to play us."