- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 2, 2008

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — After holding Texas Tech’s vaunted pass attack in check and appearing in control for most of yesterday’s Gator Bowl, Virginia let the game slip away in the final four minutes.

The Cavaliers blew a two-touchdown lead in a 31-28 loss at Jacksonville Municipal Stadium, with two touchdowns coming 21 seconds apart and then Alex Trlica kicking a 41-yard field goal with two seconds left.

“We had our opportunities and probably frankly gave the thing away,” Virginia coach Al Groh said.

For Groh and the Cavaliers (9-4), who have made a season out of winning games in the final minute and had five one- or two-point victories, the loss was painful. Even with backup quarterback Peter Lalich in the game, Virginia was poised to capture its first 10-win season since 1989.

Graham Harrell threw a 20-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Michael Crabtree with 3:31 remaining, but the Virginia sideline remained relatively calm. But a fumble by Lalich, who had entered the game after starter Jameel Sewell went down with a knee injury early in the fourth quarter, put the ball back in Harrell’s hands at the Virginia 4-yard line.

A quick score by running back Aaron Crawford tied the score 28-28, and after a harmless three-and-out by the Cavaliers’ offense, Texas Tech marched down the field on a seven-play, 30-yard drive that ended in Trlica’s game-winning field goal.

Until the final minutes, the Cavaliers executed Groh’s defensive game plan brilliantly. Virginia controlled the tempo for most of the game, reeling off 21 straight points — on two touchdowns, a field goal and two safeties on intentional-grounding calls in the end zone — to take a 21-7 halftime lead.

“I think we did pretty good coming in and just trying to shut them down,” said Virginia safety Byron Glaspy, who had five tackles and a fumble recovery on the day. “We had a few breakdowns, and that’s how it happened.”

The first half was filled with anomalies and odd plays.

Texas Tech’s offensive line, which had allowed only 15 sacks on the season, allowed three, two for safeties. Late in the first quarter, Texas Tech punter Jonathan LaCour netted a kick for minus-7 yards after he chased down a snap that had sailed over his head. Crabtree — the Biletnikoff Award winner as the nation’s best receiver — had the same number of receptions as Virginia left guard Branden Albert, who caught a designed lateral for 2 yards.

The most momentous play of the first half, however, came on second-and-8 from the Virginia 4-yard line with 7:12 left in the second quarter. Mikell Simpson took a handoff from Sewell in the shotgun, picked up a block from Albert, sidestepped one Red Raiders player and outraced cornerback Chris Parker to the goal line. Simpson’s 96-yard scamper was not only the longest in the 120-year history of Virginia football but the longest run by a running back in any bowl game.

“I just split it and looked up at the big screen to see where their defenders were,” said Simpson, who finished with 170 yards rushing. “I knew they didn’t have a chance to catch me.”

Texas Tech countered by opening the second half by recovering an onside kick and capitalizing with a 6-yard laser from Harrell to receiver Danny Amendola in the corner of the end zone. The teams swapped scoreless possessions until the fourth, when Lalich connected with Simpson on an 11-yard strike and stretched the Virginia lead to 28-14.

But the Cavaliers relinquished their stranglehold on the powerful pass-catch combination of Harrell and Crabtree just a tad too early. Crabtree, a freshman, caught nine pass for 101 yards, and Harrell threw for 407 yards and three touchdowns.

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