What began as a slow game on a humid, balmy night in Charlottesville, Va. ended in a scoring shoot-out with the CSU Rams left standing, holding onto a nail-biting 35-29 victory.
Clinging to a six-point lead with two minutes left in the game, the Ram defense appeared helpless as Virginia drove the length of the field to the goal line with only seconds left. Cavalier quarterback Marques Hagans rushed to the outside and made a leap for the endzone, but fumbled on the 1-yard line where safety David Vickers pounced on the loose ball, ending the drive and securing a thrilling win for the Rams.
The fumble punctuated a game in which the Virginia team was plagued with five turnovers that CSU turned into 13 points. The Rams discovered a new scoring threat in sophomore place kicker Jeff Babcock who connected on five field goals, including a 46-yard boot that put CSU up for good in the fourth quarter.
/It doesn/t get better than that,/ Babcock said. /I fulfilled a dream that I/ve had for a long time. I was beyond nervous, but I thank God I could come through./
The players CSU was counting on for points also came through in a big way. Quarterback Bradlee Van Pelt completed 16 of 26 passes for 221 yards and a touchdown and no interceptions. Running back Cecil Sapp, in his first game since the 2000 Liberty Bowl, rushed for a career high 186 yards on 26 carries and scored two touchdowns. Sapp was named the Jim Thorpe Classic MVP for his performance.
Head coach Sonny Lubick was impressed with his players/ ability to come up with the big play when they needed it.
/That one came down to the 6-inch line,/ Lubick said. /I/m just so proud of this football team. We were spent out there; we had guys cramping up all over the field. That was a big win for us, especially coming on the road and in the heat./
The Ram/s controlled the game on both sides of the ball in the first quarter. The defense forced Virginia to punt on three consecutive drives to open the game, keeping quarterback Matt Schaub and the Cavalier/s several running backs in check. Meanwhile, the Ram/s offense was able to put up six points with two field goals by Babcock to take a 6-0 lead into the second quarter.
The first mistake of the game for CSU came on the first play of the second quarter when Chris Pittman fumbled after a 10-yard catch. Virginia took over at midfield and marched on the Ram defense before freshman quarterback Marques Hagans scored on a two-yard touchdown run to give Virginia a 7-6 lead. Hagans replaced Schaub at several points in the game.
CSU answered Virginia/s score with possibly the most explosive play of the game. On the second play from scrimmage, running back Cecil Sapp was stopped at the line, appeared to go down, but then exploded out of the pile for a 72-yard touchdown. The run was the longest of Sapp/s career. The two-point conversion failed, leaving the Rams with a 12-7 advantage.
/I knew the safety was chasing me down, and I knew I couldn/t let him catch me,/ Sapp said. /They brought it tough and I had to bring it right back to them./
Virginia fumbled on their next two possessions and the Rams capitalized when Van Pelt hit senior receiver Joey Cuppari on a 34-yard pass to the endzone with 3:31 left in the half. After forcing the Cavaliers to punt again, the Rams entered the locker room at the half with a 19-7 lead.
The two teams traded scores for most of the second half, and CSU tied the game at 29-29 on the first drive of the fourth quarter on a 16-yard run by Sapp, his second touchdown of the game.
On the Ram/s next possession, with the score tied, a bad snap on first down sailed over Van Pelt/s head and a clipping penalty pushed the Rams back to their own 2-yard line for a first and 32 situation. Three straight passes to tight end Joel Dreessen and receiver Joey Cuppari gave CSU a miraculous first down and the Rams continued to drive until they were stopped at the Virginia 30-yard line. Already three for three on the night, Babcock got the call on a 46-yard field goal that barely made it over the cross bar. The kick put the Rams ahead for good, 32-29.
/That was the drive of drives,/ Lubick said of the possession. /I think it proves we have a lot of work to do, but the coaches did a heck of job./
Dexter Wynn stopped the ensuing Virginia drive in its tracks when he intercepted a Schaub pass and returned it 46 yards into Virginia territory. The pick led to Babcock/s fifth field goal of the night and gave CSU a 35-29 lead.
The stage was set for Virginia/s stunning drive to the goal line and Hagans/ fumble that ended a heartbreaking game for a Cavalier team that must play ACC powerhouse Florida State next week.
/It/s a great way to start the year,/ Van Pelt said. /It/s the fruit of our labor. I think we have a great team./
The Rams return to Fort Collins with a win and confidence going into a stretch of difficult non-conference games that continues with the Rocky Mountain Showdown against the University of Colorado-Boulder next Saturday.
Players of the Game:
Offense: Cecil Sapp
Senior running back had 186 yards and two touchdowns in hit first game since the 2000 Liberty Bowl
Defense: Eric Pauly
Junior linebacker recovered two fumbles and recorded several key tackles.
Special teams: Jeff Babcock
In his first game kicking field goals for the Rams, the sophomore was a perfect five for five.