The date: September 8, 1990
The matchup: No. 9 Clemson (1-0) at No. 14 Virginia (1-0)
The stakes: The winner is your 1990 ACC title favorite. Plus there’s the whole “Virginia is 0-29 against Clemson” thing. UVA was ranked in the preseason for the first time and had a chance to make the ultimate statement early in 1990.
The back story: Before George Welsh, UVA football was an afterthought. Nearly 80 years of major(ish) college football had produced one ranked finish and zero bowls before Welsh — a former Penn State assistant and Navy head coach — came to town. This was easily one of the hardest jobs in the power conferences.
Welsh slowly but surely began to change that. His Hoos went 8-2-2 in 1984, beating Purdue in the Peach Bowl to finish 20th in the AP poll. They went just 9-13 the next two years, but a few key recruiting wins gave them impetus for a more sustained breakthrough. They went 8-4 with an All-American Bowl win in 1987 and 7-4 in 1988, and behind quarterback Shawn Moore and receiver Herman Moore, they rode to a 10-win season and Citrus Bowl bid in 1989.
That was enough to get them ranked in the preseason poll for the very first time heading into 1990. But Clemson awaited. The Tigers were indeed 29-0 against UVA, and even with the Cavaliers improving, the average score of a Clemson vs. Welsh’s UVA game was Tigers 34, Hoos 16. This was the ultimate hurdle for a rising program.
The game: From 50 Best*:
Then came a huge benchmark game. Virginia had played Clemson 29 times; the Cavaliers had lost every time. Former Clemson coach Frank Howard had once called them the “white meat of our schedule,” and for good reason. This was a hurdle Welsh just hadn’t been able to clear, and he had only come close a couple of times (27-24 in 1985, 10-7 in 1988).
Virginia’s Scott Stadium had a listed capacity of 42,000 in 1990; announced attendance for the Clemson game: 46,800. But the incredible environment didn’t produce an immediate home field advantage – ninth-ranked Clemson led 7-6 at halftime. After a first-quarter touchdown run by Clemson’s DeChane Cameron, the Cavalier defense had begun to take control. Kirby scored from four yards out to give Virginia a 13-7 lead early in the third quarter, and a 12-yard Moore-to-Moore connection made it 20-7 just a few minutes later.
That was all the Wahoo defense needed. In Clemson’s next five possessions, the Tigers punted three times and turned the ball over on downs twice. As a last-ditch Clemson incompletion hit the turf and the clock expired, Virginia fans stormed the field with vigor. This win was as cathartic as they come. It was also helpful: Two games into the season, the Cavaliers were already up to 11th.
This was a huge, cathartic win. And while the rest of college football lots its everloving mind in 1990, the Cavaliers beat Navy, Duke, William & Mary, and NC State to surge all the way to No. 1 in the country.
The box score:
Neither offense was brilliant in this one, but UVA's Nikki Fisher (eight carries, 70 yards) had a couple of nice runs, and the Moore-to-Moore connection worked just enough to keep the Hoos unbeaten.
A classic loss to Georgia Tech and an injury to Shawn Moore deflated the season; from 7-0 and No. 1, the Cavaliers finished 8-4 and unranked. But for the first half of a wild season, they were the nation's best team, and they got a 30-game monkey off of their backs.
And of course, a few months after UVA’s debut at No. 1, Charlottesville produced another debut.
(No way was I not going to mention that, especially considering how much money I spent on Dave tickets in college.)