The last time Virginia bested Virginia Tech on the gridiron, Matt Schaub was the Cavalier's starting quarterback. Twitter didn't exist. MySpace was the move. But for the first time with Justin Fuente at the helm, there is doubt surrounding the Hokies' chances against the 'Hoos.
This matchup will be the 100th all-time between the in-state rivals. At 4-6 (2-4), the Hokies' bowl eligibility is on the line while the 'Hoos, 7-4 (4-3), will try to bring the Commonwealth Cup back to Charlottesville for the first time in 15 tries. The showdown kicks off at 3:30 on Black Friday.
First Down: Attrition Woes
On Monday afternoon, just a few hours before the weekly press conference was scheduled to begin, WR Sean Savoy announced his intention to transfer from Virginia Tech. He's the second Hokie in as many days to make that announcement, and the third overall for the 2018 season. Savoy joins Rico Kearney and D'Andre Plantin on the departure board.
Attrition is normal and should be expected. It's part of the college football landscape. The transfer announcements wouldn't be as worrying after the season. However, the timing of these particular decisions is what has the Hokie faithful in panic mode. Joe summed up the panic following the Kearney announcement nicely.
The 'when' to me seems odd.
Perhaps with laxer transfer rules and the early signing period to consider, accelerated movement between programs is the new norm.
When Fuente first stood at the podium on Monday afternoon, he did something out of the ordinary. He addressed the media gathered as if he was talking through them to the fanbase.
"I know that sometimes you all get frustrated with me by maybe you don't feel like I give you enough information," said Fuente. "I just want you to know that I always try and be honest and truthful and protect our kids the best I can with you. I hope you understand that. I also understand that you guys have a responsibility to ask and report and all that sort of stuff. I think it would be disingenuous if I got up here and said we're only talking about UVA. So. Obviously we had two recent departures on our team. Two young guys. We wish Rico and Sean nothing but the best. We had a lot invested in those young men and their future. We've been through a lot with both of them, quite honestly. More than most people know. Nothing bad with their behavior, just been through a lot trying to help them grow up and mature. Sometimes, it's hard on young players when they're forced into action before they're ready, out of necessity or whatever the reason may be. Like I said, it's a tough deal and we wish them nothing but the best. I know it's not indicative of our entire football team. We've got guys out there playing beat up and roughed up and trying their best to come back from injuries between Watts with a plate in his arm and a whole bunch of guys who are really really focused on trying to do our best to send this senior class out the right way."
Among the latest transfers, Kearney is the lone defensive player. The freshman linebacker only played significant time after top mike LB Rayshard Ashby suffered an undisclosed injury. In the two games Kearney started, he tallied 19 total tackles, including 18 against the Eagles.
"Rico's been playing, you know," noted Bud Foster. "He didn't play much the other game, and I'm not for sure if that was the reason why. He's a freshman, you know, he hung in there. We wish him the best. I want guys that want to be here and want to compete and know what this program is all about and the unselfishness it takes to win. That's what we're focused on and the guys who are here."
Kearney's transfer opened up the discussion of who would be the backup at mike LB. It's a prudent topic given the injury luck, or lack of, Virginia Tech has had this season.
"What we'll look at, Keshon Artis is a guy that will move on up," explained Foster. "Keshon has been on special teams this year and has done an outstanding job. He really has. He's a really intelligent guy that's a quick learner. I think he's been repping some things when Rook [Ashby] was hurt for a couple weeks. He repped with our big group, the first and second teams. Dax Hollifield could play a little bit of mike as well, if we need to. Kind of depends on Dylan Rivers a little bit. Dylan got in a few plays and dinged up his ankle again. Hoping we'll see him out there today moving around and bouncing around. Cause we need him to get back. The cupboard is not bare, but we're going back with another young guy. Another freshman that came in here in the middle of July. So that's where we are. I really like Keshon and his future. I really really do. Just because he's got a really good football IQ and a really quick learner, smart kid."
Second Down: Elders Know Best
Virginia Tech was favored by 18.5 (2016) and 7 (2017) points over the Hoos in Fuente's first two seasons at the helm. Both times, the Hokies covered. This time around, the Hokies are home underdogs against the Cavs, and inexperienced all over the depth chart. There are a grand total of two seniors on the latest Tech two-deep. The younger players can benefit from as much guidance as possible, from both current and former players.
"Well, we've got several videos from former guys that we'll show to our kids," said Fuente. "Former players, some of them are the well known guys, and some of them aren't. Guys that played roles over the years that have got to do a good job. We've got a lot of guys on this team that have not played in this game before. So we'll take some today to continue to educate them a little bit on the rivalry and what it means to play in a game like this."
It's only the third time in 20 years UVA's been favored in the matchup ('03 and '14, 1-1). For some of the younger players, it's entirely possible they haven't watched Virginia Tech lose to Virginia. Ryan Willis, a Kansas native, has been educated by teammates more familiar with the Commonwealth Cup battle.
"They've really stressed how important this is," said Willis. "Beating UVA is something we have to do year in and year out. It's expected. This rivalry is huge. I get how serious it is. I want to win more than anything in the world. I think all of our guys do. I think everybody is buying in this week and we're going to work and we're going to put the best product on the field as we can."
Kyle Chung provided insight into how he helps prepare the young bucks.
"These young guys, they have a good head about them so I don't think they're going to get too nervous or anything," noted Chung. "You just got to keep emphasizing how important this game is. That streak and how long that cup has been around here. I think, us older guys like me, Ricky [Walker], Vinny [Mihota], [Braxton] Pfaff, all of us are doing a good job of emphasizing how important it is. I think we'll be ready."
Third Down: Hate Week
These teams hate each other, and it's no secret. The Cavaliers mantra the entire season has been "Beat Tech". They even smashed a
rock paver to prove they really mean it.
Continuing to flex their focus, the UVA players elected not to speak to the media this week.
"I did frame to them what we need to get done," explained UVA head coach Bronco Mendenhall. "And what time frame and what urgency and that normal isn't enough and we needed every second. I basically said everything they're doing that's not involved with going to class or winning this game is actually not going to help us. And so I did give them the choice, and I think it gives our team the best chance to be focused, prepared, and ready."
But like a little brother begging for attention, those antics haven't bothered the Virginia Tech players.
"No, it's not really something. I, at least, haven't seen," said Pfaff. "I haven't really talked about it with anyone. We're just focused on the game and beating them. Not what they're saying."
Walker, another senior leader, was candid about his feelings prior to his final game against UVA.
"Me personally, this game is my favorite game of the year," said Walker. "There's nothing like playing against those guys up the road. No matter what, they always think they're better than us, and we keep on winning and dominating. I hope guys are ready to practice and prepare and play in this game. Most guys don't really know about this game. Maybe they saw it on TV last year, or they redshirted and they didn't play. It's going to be tough, it's going to be a great battle and at the end of the day, we just want to keep that cup in Blacksburg."
The importance of the rivalry has provided Tech a convenient distraction from the disappointing season at-large.
"We're not focused on anything that's happened this last month," said Pfaff. "It's been terrible but this weekend, this win, it could erase all of those negative things that have happened in the past month."
Chung has been in Blacksburg so long, he has a Ph.D. He knows plenty about this rivalry. He addressed the media wearing a shirt that said '4,382 days and counting'. And that's already dated. The Hokies have been in possession of the Cup for 5,108 days.
"I think one of the most special ones I've been a part of was in 2014," said Chung. "When Bucky [Hodges] blocked that punt in the end zone. I think that was a pretty cool one for me."
Ironically enough, 2014 was the last time Virginia was favored in the Commonwealth Clash. That game was also played in Lane Stadium. Those who wear maroon and orange are hoping for a similar result.
Fourth Down: UVA FAQ
What has UVA accomplished this season?
The Cavaliers are bowl eligible, were ranked in the first CFP poll of the season, and were in the thick of the ACC Coastal race until last week.
There's a reason why Hokie Nation is fretting about the streak ending. This is the best UVA team Mendenhall has had since arriving in Charlottesville, and it's the worst Hokies squad in a long while.
The Cavaliers' main calling card is their defense. UVA allows only 20.6 points/game (24th nationally), compared to Virginia Tech's 31.7 (91st). Virginia concedes only 326.6 yards/game (22nd) and the Hokies are allowing 436.6 yards/game (99th).
'Hoo should the Hokie Nation look out for?
Quarterback Bryce Perkins feels like the right answer here. The dual-threat Arizona Western CC (JUCO) transfer has led the charge for Virginia this year. Perkins has 2,213 yards, 19 touchdowns and 9 interceptions all while maintaining a 65.4% completion rate. On the ground, Perkins has gained 730 yards from 173 rushes and scored 9 touchdowns.
"Let me tell you, the thing that jumps off the film to me about Bryce is that he doesn't ever look like he's trying very hard," said Fuente. "He's such a smooth athlete. He never looks like he's straining. The amount of tackles that have been missed that he's made people miss when getting outside and running around is pretty astounding. He's certainly not the only reason, but he's been a catalyst for them and their success. We'll have to do a good job trying to slow him down. He's been a very efficient passer. It's not a situation where you've got a guy that runs around there with no plan. He knows where to deliver the football, he's got what seems like good composure, and some really special athletic gifts to go make plays on his own. It'll be a tremendous challenge to try and slow him down. Because nobody has stopped him."
Who wins and why?
It's time, ladies and gentlemen. The dreaded moment when it gets typed out.
Virginia beats Virginia Tech on Friday afternoon. The Cavaliers are playing better this year, they seem more motivated, and their team seems more complete.
Does this mean it's a guaranteed UVA win? Absolutely not. But to be fair, this is from last week and it still holds true:
Until Virginia Tech shows that they're capable of winning a game against an FBS team in Lane Stadium this season, there's no reason to pick them.
The Hokies haven't beaten an FBS team at home in over a year. They've been outscored in the third quarter of those contests 63-0. The Hokies offense hasn't shown much fight, and with a young defense, Virginia Tech can't lean on Foster to keep them in the game like years past.
Both streaks end on Friday.