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Fan criticism rankles Cavaliers

Dan Ellis could think of only one place to escape the scathing boos and hisses that had cascaded down upon him just a few hours earlier in Virginia's first home loss to Duke since 1981: the library.

Think again.

"I was going to go study, and somebody flicked me off," the Cav quarterback said. "He drove by and I was with my girlfriend, and I was like, 'He just flicked me off -- that's amazing.'"

Until Saturday's Duke debacle, the Cavalier faithful had been faithful. But fifteen minutes of disheveled Virginia football were enough to change that.

Three Donnie Scott punts and a Duke interception of an Ellis toss inside the Blue Devil 30 constituted the extent of the sputtering Virginia offense in the first quarter. To make matters worse, a special teams highlight quickly soured when an illegal block negated Arlen Harris' 69-yard punt return for touchdown.

So without further ado, disgruntled Cavalier fans decided to give Coach George Welsh's squad a big piece of their mind.

Cornerback Tim Spruill heard the boos reverberating through Scott Stadium. So did fellow defensive back Dwayne Stukes. Ellis, though, heard them loudest of all.

"We run off the field and everybody boos," Ellis said. "The defense goes on the field, stops them and everybody cheers. Then we run back on the field, and before we even run a play, we're booed. It was weird, but you have to block it out because it's all part of the game."

As a quarterback, Ellis must have a thick skin -- he has no choice if he wants to keep his sanity. Plus he's a native of Pennsylvania, where Philadelphia fanatics boo players and coaches, so he's used to tough-love fans. As a professed hater of former Philadelphia Eagle Coach Buddy Ryan, he is one of those fans.

Spruill and Stukes, however, maintain a slightly different view of the cacophony spilling down on David A. Harrison Field.

"I laughed actually," Stukes said. "From some of the fans, that's expected, but other fans I wouldn't expect it from. True fans will stick by their team no matter what's going on. You can't expect us to just go in a game and dominate a team because the ACC is one of the top conferences. We need the fans to stick by us, and if they don't, it's on them. It's ridiculous that it came to booing."

Spruill said he just doesn't care.

"Everybody thinks they know what should happen on the field," Spruill said. "They're going to boo the quarterback, the linebackers, the secondary -- you just can't pay attention to it. Maybe everybody's a coach. Everyone wants to be George Welsh, but we knew what we were doing."

Mired in a two-game skid, floundering at .500 and searching for a way to reduce critical mistakes, Virginia has pressing concerns that extend well beyond a few unhappy fans.

"I don't want to be a member of a team that doesn't go to a bowl game," wide receiver Ahmad Hawkins said. "I don't want to be a member of a team that's .500, or one game over .500. I don't want to lose any more games. I feel we can beat any team in the nation."

Hawkins said he hopes his teammates share his killer instinct -- and with Florida State and Georgia Tech looming on a schedule that also offers an N.C. State squad fresh off a comeback win over Clemson, the Cavs will have to.

"I hate to lose," Spruill said. "I'm probably the worst competitor there is because I'm such a sore loser. I don't just look at football as a game -- it's more than a game when you pour your heart out for 60 minutes. You have to be mad."

Stukes, who excelled as an underclassmen but has seen his final two seasons racked by one nagging leg injury after another, echoes those sentiments. And if anyone knows the meaning of soul searching, it is Stukes, whose career had all the trappings of superstardom, only to dissipate in disappointment.

"For me personally, it still hurts," he said. "If you come to accept losses, then you'll see Virginia at the bottom of the Conference."

Depleted by injuries, racked by academic and legal suspensions, devastated by tragedy, Virginia is a mangy dog, able to muster no more than a whimper in back-to-back losses to Virginia Tech and Duke.

But Hawkins has a solution.

"We have to win every play, just take it one play at a time," Hawkins said. "If you want to beat any ACC teams then you have to win every" play.

In Ellis' mind, though, the roots of the problem lie deeper than missed blocks, dropped passes and busted coverages. They start upstairs. And they require more than just switching an X to an O or opting for man-to-man defense over zone.

"We have to get a new attitude," Ellis said. "I'm disappointed with the attitude of this team and the way we got down on ourselves. We can't just fool around out there."

Which leads the signal caller, without making excuses, to ask the fans to remain loyal to the Virginia football cause.

"When we lost to Clemson, people were saying we were going to go 3-8 and calling us and saying we sucked," Ellis said. "Basically we've gone through a lot of adversity on and off the field. We lost a lot of guys. It's just a different year for Virginia football"

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