To say the University of Virginia football program had a dry history prior to the arrival of head coach George Welsh in 1982 would understate the case. The Cavaliers joined the ACC in 1954 and had never won it. Only sporadically were they even a good team. It didn’t take Welsh long to turn things around. By his second season he was winning more games than he lost and in 1989 picked up a piece of the conference championship. That set the stage for 1990 Virginia football to go on as wild a ride as any college football team ever has.
The Cavs were led by an explosive offense that dropped 38ppg and ranked fourth in the nation in scoring. Shawn Moore was at quarterback and all his key statistics—60% completion rate, 9.4 yards-per-attempt and 21 touchdown passes led the ACC. Moore finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy voting.
Another Moore, no relation, was Herman at the wide receiver spot. Herman Moore was a first-team All-American and racked up nearly 1,200 yards receiving at better than twenty yards per catch. Herman finished sixth in the Heisman voting and the Moore-to-Moore combination was the key to Virginia’s offensive success.
That didn’t mean the Cavs couldn’t run the football. Terry Kirby went over 1,000 yards and was All-ACC. Kirby’s 33 catches were second on the team behind Herman Moore. Nikki Fisher ran for 848 yards. Just as notable, Kirby and Fisher got big chunks of yardage whenever they ran the ball, ranking 1-2 in the conference for yards-per-carry.
Ray Roberts, soon to be a top 10 NFL draft pick the following spring was the key to the offensive line at the tackle spot. Trevor Ryals was the All-ACC center.
Defensively was where Virginia had problems. The only all-conference player was lineman Chris Slade. The defense wasn’t bad, but at 38th in the country in points allowed, it wasn’t national championship caliber—something that would become painfully clear in the season’s biggest game.
Virginia paid a visit to lowly Kansas in a matchup that seems more suited for the NCAA Tournament in March than a college football opener in September. The Cavs won easily 59-10. That set up an early conference game with Clemson.
The Tigers were the ACC’s most consistent program and came into Charlottesville ranked #9. They got an early touchdown and led 7-6 at the half. But the Virginia defense was playing its best game of the season. A third-quarter scoring burst made the difference. Kirby ran for one touchdown, the Moore-to-Moore passing combo delivered another and Virginia won 20-7. They were the early frontrunner in the ACC and ranked #11 in the country.
A 56-14 home pummeling of mediocre Navy followed. Virginia paid a visit to Duke, whom they had shared conference honors with a year before. But that was when the Blue Devils had Steve Spurrier on the sidelines. The ‘Ol Ball Coach had departed for Florida this season and the Duke program would tank. The Cavs blasted the Blue Devils 59-10.
Virginia closed September with a perfunctory 63-35 thrashing of William & Mary. They had a week off. And in the chaotic world that was the 1990 college football season, two weeks was a lot of time to sit back and watch favorites fall.
By the time the Cavs took the field two weeks later against N.C. State they were ranked #2 in the country. And an easy 31-0 win over a respectable opponent, combined with an upset loss by top-ranked Michigan. Here we were in mid-October and against all odds, the Virginia football program was ranked #1 in the country.
Virginia went to Wake Forest and blew out the Demon Deacons 49-14. They took another week off and got ready to host Georgia Tech in what was now the game of the year in the ACC.
The Yellow Jackets were only ranked #16, but they were also undefeated, with just one tie on the resume. The winner of the ACC had an automatic bid to the Citrus Bowl (today’s Capital One Bowl) and there was talk that the Citrus could host a national championship game early on New Year’s Day afternoon with Virginia and then-#2 Notre Dame.
That presumed taking care of business and the Virginia offense was ready for the moment. The Moore-to-Moore combination was electric on the national stage. Herman caught nine balls for 234 yards. The Cav offense racked up 519 total yards. On two different occasions they had two-touchdown leads.
But the defensive shortcomings would come home to roost. Georgia Tech rallied and led 38-35 late in the game. Undeterred, Shawn Moore led Virginia down close for a shot at the go-ahead touchdown. A critical illegal motion penalty stalled the drive. Welsh opted for a field goal and appeared ready to leave with a 38-38 tie.
It turned out that didn’t happen. Georgia Tech drove one more time and kicked a game-winning field goal as time expired. The Cavs had lost 41-38. Pollsters showed what they really thought of this team by dropping them all the way to #11. Virginia’s time in the national spotlight was over.
At least for now. The chaos of 1990 went all the way through to the end, so much so that Georgia Tech ended up with a piece of the national championship. But Virginia was going to hit some bad luck.
The Cavs got a 24-10 road win against a decent North Carolina team that had future NFL power running back Natrone Means in the backfield. The final two games would be against Maryland and Virginia Tech, both of whom needed victories if they were going to have winning seasons.
In the middle of an offensive shootout with the Terps at home, Shawn Moore was injured. His finger had been painfully bent back and he was done for the regular season. Virginia lost 35-30. Playing without their quarterback at Virginia Tech, the Cavs were pounded 38-13.
The team that had been #1 in the polls when November started was unranked by Thanksgiving. That was college football in 1990 for you, but there was still a shot at redemption. The Sugar Bowl came calling and Virginia would get a chance against 10th-ranked Tennessee.
Shawn Moore came back, but he wasn’t sharp—between the layoff and effects of the bad finger, he missed some throws he might normally have hit. A good running game behind Kirby and Fisher helped Virginia build a 16-0 lead. But the defense let it get away and the end result was a 23-22 loss.
Even in defeat, Virginia managed to sneak back into the final polls at #23. The ultimate legacy of this team is mixed. The late defeats put an undeniable damper on the season. At the same time, this isn’t a program with an incredible history of big years and 1990 was still, by far, the most excitement that has ever been produced in Charlottesville for the football team.