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Injuries stretch Virginia defense to breaking point

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," Cav 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, who's 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. X-rays early the next week would show an ankle sprain, that has Griffith sidelined indefinitely.

Couple that with the loss of starting defensive tackle Monsanto Pope to a ruptured MCL in the first series of the year and a seemingly solid core begins to disintegrate. Sprinkle in tackle Maurice Anderson's ongoing battle with turf toe, end Devin "Boo" Battle's injuries and end Daryl Sanders' academic ineligibility and a once confident Welsh now is on the phone with the White House requesting emergency relief.

Last Saturday, the dissipated defensive line lacked the bodies and the punch to slow down Clemson's quick strike offense. Tiger quarterback Brandon Streeter had the luxury of standing in the pocket for what seemed like hours to pick apart the hapless 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 backfield. 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 secondary looked like something out of a nursery. At one point Saturday, three first years and two upperclassmen with little or no game-time 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.

Which brings Welsh to yet another dilemma, one that he hoped he would not have to consider with the expected depth along the defensive line entering the 1999 campaign: 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."

Taylor has a warning for the Demon Deacons, though: don't pick on a wounded dog - it might just bite back.

"We've had two road games in hostile environments," Taylor said. "We're ready to play in front of the home crowd. Wake Forest picked the wrong week to play us."