Welcome to Hate Week everyone, and oh, what a Hate Week it shall be, as UVA might actually not be terrible.
There are plenty of reasons to be nervous about this game if you're a Hokie fan (and for people like myself who have tickets to the game in Lane Stadium North, there are more reasons than most).
After all, the Hoos were busy playing a competitive game against Miami at the same time as the Hokies were working to (narrowly) avoid a third straight loss, at home against an ACC bottom-feeder, no less. The contrast was especially clear for everyone in Lane nervously watching the Hokies try to handle the Panthers, as updates on the UVA game flashed on the scoreboard.
But I, for one, am happy to see UVA be more than just doormat headed into the matchup for the Commonwealth Cup. It's no fun if the Hokies just pummel the Hoos into oblivion every year and just add one last insult to an already embarrassing season each time.
It's much more fun if the Hokies do so when everyone is getting excited about UVA football — remember how good 38-0 felt back in 2011?
So sure, there's an added risk that Tech can't keep up the streak, particularly when you factor in all the bumps and bruises the Hokies have right now (and the fact that the offense has looked pretty lost these last two weeks).
Yet I am happy to welcome the edge that comes with this game feeling like a legitimate rivalry matchup instead of a widely expected coronation for the Hokies.
I expect that some of the Hoo hype isn't quite all it's cracked up to be (lest we forget, Pitt and BC both pummeled UVA a few weeks back, and the Hoos barely squeaked out a win against UNC). But if Bronco Mendenhall truly has things moving in the right direction in Charlottesville, then I am eager to see if the Hokies can keep up their dominance all the same.
Suffice it to say that emotions will be running high on both sides, if Monday's media availability is any indication.
UVA Has a Good Offense: Do Not Adjust Your Computer's Settings
If you haven't paid much attention to UVA's season so far (and, while they may be 6-5, who could blame you?), then you might've missed that the Hoos are one of the better passing offenses in the country!
I know, it might seem odd that the very same Kurt Benkert who went a whopping 9 for 22 for 122 yards against the Hokies last year is piloting the 39th ranked passing game in the country, but that is the world we live in. The Hoos are averaging about 264 yards per game through the air, just one spot below Miami and 15 (!) spots above Virginia Tech, and Benkert has been quite sharp, completing more than 60 percent of his passes while throwing for 25 touchdowns to eight picks.
Bud Foster attributed that sort of performance to Benkert's extra year in Mendenhall's system, and he gave real credence to the threat the Hoos pose through the air.
"They're going to take some shots down the field, that's what they do right now," Foster told reporters. "They're going to mix in some run and they do a nice job at that, but where they're having success is throwing the ball down the field."
WR Andre Levrone has been particularly explosive this year, averaging about 20.8 yards per game and leading the team with seven touchdowns, and Foster is clearly keeping an eye on him as well.
"I'll tell you he's really an explosive athlete. Long, dynamic guy down the field and Benkert can get the ball to him you know," Foster said. "I'm sure they're going to take their shots down the field against us, particularly if we've got a group that's beat up a little bit, they're going to take their shot."
Well thanks, Bud for nicely transitioning into our very next Tidbit.
The Post-'Rell Shuffle Continues
To see those passing stats and then examine the state of the Hokies' defensive backs is a bit concerning, to say the least.
The Pitt game certainly gave us some clarity about how Foster and company plan to manage the secondary in the wake of Terrell Edmunds' season-ending injury (not to mention Adonis Alexander's continued absence).
It seems that his preferred option was indeed to play Mook Reynolds at safety and rotate in Deon Newsome at whip as needed, and it's an arrangement that generally worked well.
"The best teacher is experience and that was a great learning experience for him," Foster said of Reynolds. "This will be an important week of practice for him and continue to play that spot and learn the little nuances of the position and maybe checks that he's been involved in, and now he's the guy that has to make those calls. He's got the tools to do that."
That answer certainly makes it sound as if Mook will be available this week after getting hurt on Jester Weah's terror-inducing 74-yard reception as the fourth quarter wound down on Saturday — for his part, Justin Fuente wouldn't give away any details about Reynolds' status on Monday. Ditto for DE Vinny Mihota, who also went down on that fateful play.
But, luckily, Foster was also optimistic about Khalil Ladler's performance in limited snaps, with few bigger than how he helped contribute to Tech's big goal line stand to close out the game.
"He knew the formation that they were in that last play and knew what we could anticipate the play they were going to run and he played that way," Foster said. "He's a guy that has improved throughout. Every time he's stepped in the game, he's performed. If he's going to play a bigger role this week, I fully expect him to excel."
That praise aside, it's a bit nerve-wracking that Ladler could end up getting his first start against a vastly improved UVA passing attack. I know I'll definitely be watching closely for when Tech's injury report drops later this week, that's for sure.
Revolving Door, No More?
It would probably be kind to call the offense a tire fire against the Panthers, but the one thing that seemed to go well for the Hokies was the emergence of a competent running game.
This was offset, of course, by Josh Jackson's major, major struggles completing even intermediate passes — he insisted Monday that he's fully healthy, but count me as a bit skeptical — yet it's still an interesting development as we consider how this offense has evolved this year, and how it might to continue to do so in the future.
Fuente said Monday that the running back rotation has been "a little bit of a revolving door," and it's clear that the Hokies never really settled on a reliable way to mix in each running back. But the staff seems to have hit on a more effective combination in the mix of Deshawn McClease and Jalen Holston, who combined for 122 yards on 26 carries. Even Jackson himself got a bit more involved in the ground game, with 39 yards on 10 carries.
You'll notice that that combination didn't include Travon McMillian, who only got one carry before he reaggravated some nagging injuries, and it's not clear exactly how much he'll be available this week.
Fuente said RB Travon McMillian said he didn't practice much last week, a little bit more at the end of the week. Fuente said they tried to put McMillian out there Saturday, but didn't want to push it. Expects McMillian to feel better this week. #Hokies— Norm Wood (@normwood) November 20, 2017
But it might not even be such a bad thing if the coaches focus on simply using McClease and Holston in concert, given the way they looked against the Panthers (who have a perfectly respectable run defense: 50th in the country in rush yards allowed per game).
Fuente also had plenty of nice things to say about Holston, who he expects will "become a bigger part of what we're doing" going forward. In fact, he expects that "would have happened a couple weeks earlier had he not gotten sick there about a quarter of the way through the year."
I'm a bit puzzled why the coaching staff didn't land on this combination earlier, but to hear Fuente tell it, they were really counting on a contribution from Steven Peoples this year, and seemed legitimately thrown for a loop when they didn't get it.
"When you go back to the very first game of the year and watch him run the football, he was a force running the ball in his carries," Fuente said. "I really anticipated that expanding as it went along and it just hasn't because he's just not been able to play as much. Hopefully, moving forward, he'll get back and be able to contribute. "
I would not have expected this reaction! In any case, we'll get a chance to see if the Hokies have hit on something here soon enough.
The Hoos are 19th in the country in pass defense, allowing about 183 yards per game. They're 70th in run defense, allowing 176 yards per game, so if the Hokies are going to shake out of their recent offensive malaise, they may very well have to do so on the ground.
I leave you this week with one of many cool Senior Day moments from Saturday.
Some pictures are worth a thousand words... 🦃After winning in epic fashion on Senior Day this past Saturday, Eric Gallo didn't want to leave the field. These photos were taken over an hour after the game. pic.twitter.com/OhMm5KuNnp— HokiesFB 🦃 (@HokiesFB) November 20, 2017