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As ground game distracts opposing defenses, Ellis and McMullen emerge

DURHAM, N.C.-After a year handing off to Thomas Jones, quarterback Dan Ellis expects opposing defenses to devote an exorbitant amount of energy to stopping the Virginia running game. Even with Jones gone to the NFL, longtime understudy Antwoine Womack gives the Cavaliers a supremely talented tailback to spearhead their run-first offense. That kind of focus on the ground game is fine with Ellis, as long as opponents do as Duke did Saturday and give him free license to throw the ball.

Ellis and the Cav offense didn't exactly burst from the proverbial starting gate, going three-and-out on their first three possessions while netting a total of minus three yards. With up to nine Blue Devil defenders in the box at times, Virginia managed only 119 yards on the ground all day, but the passing game became virtually unstoppable after the Cavs began picking up Duke's assortment of stunts and blitzes.

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    Ellis finished 20-for-30 with 333 yards in the air, 189 of them to sophomore wideout Billy McMullen, who snagged eight catches. The Ellis/McMullen duo produced a pair of dazzling long touchdown passes and Ellis tossed another score to senior Demetrius Dotson.

    "Pretty much every team is going to stop us from running the ball," Ellis said. "Every down, they've got eight people in the box, so we knew coming in we were going to have to throw the ball."

    And throw the ball he did. Ellis hooked up with McMullen in the first quarter on a 35-yard deep out down the left sideline and settled in at the end of the half, leading the Cavaliers on a 94-yard touchdown march that gave them a 10-3 lead with 26 seconds left before the break.

    Ellis indicated that the drive, which consisted of four completions of 10-plus yards and culminated in an 8-yard scoring strike to Dotson, was proof that the Virginia offense had finally started to break out after a frustrating opening. The Blue Devil defense was less of a problem than the Cavs' own inability to execute.

    "We knew coming in what they were going to do," Ellis said. "It's not like they surprised us. They did the same things they've done since I've been here."

    That Duke scheme included a heaping dose of man-to-man coverage, just the medicine McMullen needed. The Richmond native's rookie campaign last year ranked with the best in Virginia freshman wideout history, but he began the 2000 season with only one catch against Brigham Young. McMullen rebounded with six receptions last week and followed up with Saturday's performance, which included career highs in catches and receiving yards.

    "It's about time," Cavalier coach George Welsh said. "They played a lot of one-on-one on McMullen out there. I don't know if I'd do that. They had trouble with McMullen, whether it was short or long. And Ellis made some great plays under heavy pressure."

    The Virginia passing game also took great advantage of Duke's undersized defensive backs. Devil cornerbacks Derrick Lee (5-foot-11) and Ronnie Hamilton (5-8) had to contend with a five-man Cav receiving corps that features a pair of 6-4 starters and only one wideout shorter than 6-foot.

    "Me and Dan just gave the signal when we saw them in one on one," McMullen said. "We more or less figured out the defense and knew that we could put it up deep because they were so small."

    Of course, decimating the ACC's worst defense is one thing. Next week, Virginia hosts the Clemson Tigers, owners of a No. 11 ranking, a 3-0 record and the conference's best defense. Six days from now, Ellis and McMullen might have far more trouble with their Moore-to-Moore imitation.


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