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Betting on belief: The story of Georgia Tech’s wild win over No. 1 Virginia in 1990

In this guest article, Bill Chastain explores how an underdog Georgia Tech squad chartered its course to an eventual national title with a thrilling victory over an "unstoppable" Virginia team

Photo courtesy of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

This is a guest feature article from Bill Chastain, a veteran sportswriter who worked for the Tampa Bay Tribune for several years covering everything from Major League Baseball to golf, before working for MLB.com to cover the Tampa Bay Rays. A freelance writer living in Atlanta, he also is the author of several books, including Peachtree Corvette Club and The Streak.

Georgia Tech’s football team flew to Charlottesville on November 2, 1990. They went straight to Scott Stadium for a light workout that Friday. A date with No. 1 Virginia awaited the following day.

Alice Ross watched while her husband, Tech coach Bobby Ross, took his team through its paces. Bill Millsaps spotted Alice and approached. The sports columnist and editor of the Richmond Times-Gazzette told her. “Virginia is going to whip up on ya’ll pretty good.”

“He was serious,” Bobby Ross said. “So she said, ‘No they’re not. You want to bet?’ He went along. They bet a box of Mounds candy bars.”

Had Bobby heard the discussion in real time, he might have advised his wife, “Not so fast Alice.” He’d seen the films. Virginia was a horror show. Strong, fast defense. Potent offense. NFL-type players filled their roster. Athletes all over the field. And the passing combination of Shawn Moore to Herman Moore resembled one for the ages. Unstoppable.

Virginia entered the game at 7-0 and 4-0 in the Atlantic Coast Conference. When George Welsh left Navy to become the Cavaliers’ head coach in 1982, he took over a team that had gone 1-10 the previous season. By 1984, Welsh had turned the program around.

Explosive plays defined the Cavaliers. They averaged 48 points per game to their opponent’s 11.

“We knew we were good,” Shawn Moore said. “Just didn’t know how good. Once we started climbing up the polls, and we went past Miami and ahead of Nebraska — a couple of perennial powers from the ’90s, we knew we were on to something special. The community knew. The state knew. And everyone was supportive.”

Ross left Maryland after the 1986 season to take the Georgia Tech job. In his first three seasons, he compiled records of 2-9, 3-8, and 7-4. The fruits of the veteran coach’s efforts were evident in the fall of 1990.

Tech carried a 6-0-1 record into the Virginia game. The defense had led the way. Opponents had scored only 94 points against them.

“They were physical,” Shawn Moore said. “We knew they were going to try and take Herman out of the game with their big safety [All-American Ken] Swilling.”

Photo of the complimentary media t-shirt courtesy of Jerry Ratcliffe

A record crowd of 49,700 jammed into Scott Stadium for a game that almost didn’t take place. Vandals had burned an 18-foot-by-32-foot patch of AstroTurf at midfield the night before. An emergency early-morning patch job repaired the damage. The game started on schedule.

Virginia stepped on the gas the moment they came out of the tunnel.

Shawn Moore hit Herman Moore on a 36-yard pass to lead an eight-play, 68-yard drive. Shawn Moore capped the effort with a 1-yard touchdown run. Jake McInerney’s 27-yard field goal put the Cavaliers up 10-0. And he added a career-long 51-yarder to push the lead to 13-0.

“Herman was a very talented athlete,” Shawn Moore said. “He had a knack. He was a good route runner. If you threw the ball near him, he was so athletic, he was going to get the football.

“Herman had a toe issue going into that game. He had a severe case of turf toe. But he loved playing in the spotlight. When it was time to perform in the spotlight against a talented team, he took it personal. Everyone kept talking about Ken Swilling, Ken Swilling. Herman, he took that personal. So anytime Ken Swilling was on him one on one, he knew it was an opportunity to excel and show how good he was.”

Clad in wide shoulder pads and an 88 jersey, the 6-foot-4 receiver resembled a superhero.  

“Whether it was a hitch or a curl, or a fade,” Shawn Moore said. “We would convert. You could not guard Herman one on one. [Playing man coverage] was a mistake on their part.”

Swilling, who stood 6-2, entered the game banged up. He’d injured the ankle returning a kickoff three games earlier in Tech’s 21-19 win over Clemson.

Swilling “was no better than 50 percent [for the Virginia game],” Ross said. “Doctor said he was okay to play if he felt he could. He told us he felt he could. But very early in the game, you could see that that was not going to be the case. He had no drive on the ball whatsoever.

“He wasn’t running angles in the secondary. He was running circles. And that’s not good when you’re playing a team like Virginia. That had a lot to do with some of the things that were happening early in the game.”

Tech quarterback Shawn Jones’ scrambling 23-yard touchdown run cut Virginia’s lead to 13-7. Virginia didn’t waver. Moore-to-Moore clicked for a 44-yard completion. Shawn Moore finished the 61-yard drive with a 1-yard sneak. Herman Moore caught a Shawn Moore pass for the 2-point conversion, giving Virginia a 21-7 lead.

The unflappable “Other Shawn” answered by throwing a 43-yard touchdown to Jerry Gilchrist.

Gilchrist went to Tech on a track scholarship and transitioned to football. He’d considered graduating the previous spring. Ross had talked into staying for one more fall.

Photo courtesy of YouTube

Gilchrist wasn’t on the field when offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen called “839.” Tech rotated a stable of receivers throughout the game.

“I was on the sideline,” Gilchrist said. “I was like, ‘Man, I wish I was out there. I’m one play off.’ We knew the play was going to work. Then there was a penalty. I figured the play would get changed. I was the next guy up. And Coach Ross said run the same play. I went in. I gave Shawn the play. Exact same thing. It worked like a charm. For me it was being in the right place at the right time.”

Gilchrist’s fastest time in the 40 was 4.28 seconds. That speed brought the receiver his only doubt.

“I was concerned whether Shawn was going to throw it far enough,” Gilchrist said. “Shawn had a great arm. But I knew that sometimes, when the adrenalin’s flowing, things are pumping — I just didn’t want to out-run him. He made a perfect throw.”

Virginia struck again before the intermission. Shawn Moore’s 6-yard touchdown run gave the Cavaliers a 28-14 lead. The top team in the nation had put on a near-perfect offensive show in the first half.

Coaches make halftime adjustments. And Tech made their share.

Herman Moore became cornerback Willie Clay’s responsibility. “Wherever Herman went, Willie went,” Ross said.

Tech coaches stressed the need for a better pass rush.

“We needed to get pressure on [Shawn] Moore,” Ross said. “And we did. That helped a lot. We didn’t fear their running game. But after seeing it in the first half, we were very fearful then.

“We put in a running line stunt where we started slanting a little more. We’d give a gap charge. Things of that nature to get a little more penetration against the running game.”

“If we’re going to be honest, we were absolutely destroying Georgia Tech in the first half. It was easy. And I think at halftime, the coaches kind of called the dogs off.”

— Virginia safety Tony Covington

Most important, the Tech coaches didn’t act alarmed.

“No matter when we got down early, and throughout the game, the coaches never panicked,” linebacker Calvin Tiggle said. “They remained calm. That helped us believe in ourselves.”

Virginia had plenty of confidence entering the game. The first half only added to it.

“If we’re going to be honest, we were absolutely destroying Georgia Tech in the first half,” Virginia safety Tony Covington said. “It was easy. And I think at halftime, the coaches kind of called the dogs off. We played kind of conservative on defense. We played not to lose in the second half instead of continuing to press the flesh as we had done in the first half.”

The breaks began to fall Tech’s way at the outset of the second half. Shawn Moore fumbled on the first play. But Tech had not forced the fumble.

“At the time, I didn’t even know what happened,” said Shawn Moore regarding the play that saw a teammate kick the ball out of his hands.

Tiggle fell on the fumble at Virginia’s 28.

“I jumped on the ball,” Tiggle said. “And that was like an extra boost for us. This is what we practice for. Breaks like this. Let’s take advantage of this. That gave us that energy boost. The power boost we needed.”

When Georgia Tech moved the ball to the Virginia 12. Friedgen saw an opportunity to exploit the Cavaliers’ over-aggressive defense. Gilchrist got the ball on a reverse.

“We’d been setting it up the entire game with a lot of the option, a lot of the edge runs, it was set up perfectly,” Gilchrist said. “That was one of the few plays that I knew I would run. I think we set that play up during the entire season. But I didn’t think that we’d run it so close to the goal line. I thought we’d run it on our side of the field. Maybe on a second and short. Third and short.”

Gilchrist got the ball on the reverse and darted into the end zone. Mike Mooney made a critical block on the play. The tackle looped back around and took out two pursuing Virginia defenders with a block.

Georgia Tech had pulled within a touchdown at 28-21.

Virginia got the ball back and drove to the Yellow Jackets’ 15. Shawn Moore tossed a short pass to running back Nikki Fisher. He couldn’t make the catch, and the ball deflected to the opportunistic Tiggle. He returned the interception to the Virginia 48.

Virginia held, but Georgia Tech punter Scott Aldredge’s punt backed up the Cavaliers to their own 4. Three plays later, Virginia punted. Tech had the ball at Virginia’s 46.

Shawn Jones led a six-play drive capped by a 26-yard touchdown pass to Emmett Merchant. That score tied the game. But the Yellow Jackets still had no answer for Herman Moore. Shawn Moore found his favorite target for a 63-yard touchdown to put Virginia up 35-28.

After Herman scored, he turned and put his hand on his hips, like “Nothing to it.” Shawn Moore laughed when reminded about the cocky display. “Herman was a hot dog. All receivers are prima donnas. Herman and the other receivers had this thing where they always worked on how they were going to celebrate. He knew he was going to celebrate.”

William Bell’s 8-yard touchdown run tied the game at 35 before the end of the third quarter. Then Scott Sisson’s 32-yard field goal with 7:17 remaining in the game gave Tech its first lead at 38-35. That set the stage for the biggest series of the afternoon.

Shawn Moore found Herman Moore for 48 yards. A dead-ball personal foul that followed gave the Cavaliers the football at the Tech 6. Two plays later, Virginia faced third down from the Tech 1. Shawn Moore threw to tight end Aaron Mundy for what appeared to be the go-ahead touchdown. But the Cavs had lined up with only six men on the line of scrimmage, one less than the minimum. Virginia had only 10 men on the field and lacked a tight end.

“We were in our three-tight end set,” Shawn Moore said. “But one of our tight ends wasn’t in the game. The touchdown pass to Aaron Munday was called back. Our starting tight end, Bruce McGonnigal was out with an injury. He was part of that three tight-end package. For whatever reason, we didn’t have our 11th guy, our third tight end, in the game. Getting the touchdown called back was huge.”

The resulting penalty pushed the ball back to the 6. Shawn Moore then threw to Herman Moore in the end zone. He looked open, but a diving Tiggle knocked down the pass.

“I saw Herman look around,” Tiggle said. “I was just running with Herman. When he threw the ball, I was just hoping that I could get a hand on it. I was too far away to intercept it. I barely got it on my fingertips. That was one of those, ‘Please God! Please God!’”

“Tiggle made a great play,” Ross said. “He completely laid out parallel. The guy was open.”

Virginia settled for a game-tying 23-yard field goal. Even if Virginia had scored a touchdown, Tech’s ensuing attack wouldn’t have changed.

“(Coach Pat Watson) tells me, ‘Coach, why don’t you go over there and tell (Scott Sisson) a joke. And I said, ‘I don’t know any damn jokes.'”

— Georgia Tech head coach Bobby Ross

“We were going to go for the win,” said Ross, allowing that overtime periods had not yet been born in college football. “There wasn’t going to be any discussion on that. We were going to go for the win, period.”

Gilchrist added: “In my mind it wasn’t a matter if we were going to score. It was whether we were going to score too early and give them time to come back. Or if we were going to score a field goal or a touchdown. But I knew we were going to score one way or the other.”

Tech got the ball at their 24. The clock read 2:28. Friedgen called “77” on the first play.

“Ralph called that play because they were playing two deep and left the middle open,” Ross said. “And Bell could get down there pretty quickly.”

Photo credit — Heinz Kluetmeier

Jones found Bell circling out of the backfield. The 23-yard gain gave Tech the ball at midfield.

Four plays later, Sisson lined up for a 37-yard field goal with 12 seconds on the clock, and Georgia Tech called a time out. Virginia followed with another time out in an attempt to ice Sisson. Georgia Tech line coach Pat Watson approached Ross during the second time out. “He tells me, ‘Coach, why don’t you go over there and tell [Sisson] a joke,’” Ross chuckled. “And I said, ‘I don’t know any damn jokes.’”

Sisson’s kick split the uprights. Tech led 41-38. But 7 seconds remained. And Virginia had two timeouts.

Virginia downed Tech’s squib kick at the 25. Everybody in the stadium knew the plan. Could the Moore-to-Moore magic work one last time? Shawn Moore dropped back and heaved the ball deep. Herman Moore leaped into the air, accompanied by a host of Yellow Jacket defenders. Tech’s Erick Fry intercepted the pass to end the game.

Virginia had greased the goal posts to avoid students tearing them down after a victory. Scott Stadium’s goal posts remained intact that day. In Atlanta, Grant Field’s goal posts weren’t so lucky. Georgia Tech students celebrated by tearing them down.

Tech’s win put them in the national championship conversation, and, after a myriad of upsets and collapses, the Yellow Jackets went on to win a share of the national championship. UPI declared the undefeated Yellow Jackets No. 1 while the Associated Press voted in once-beaten Colorado.

The victory also won a bet. “About a week after the game, here comes to our house some Mounds bars,” Ross said. “They were melted. But they never tasted so good.”

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