If you're reading this preview, the Virginia-Virginia Tech rivalry needs no introduction. The football programs may respect each other at the coach and administrative levels. But the players certainly do not like one another. And the fans? They can barely contain their disdain for the opposing side.
The athletic programs may compete hard in other sports. But in football, it's just different.
The passion and rooting interests are generational. Rarely do people cross lines within their families (although I did much to my father's parents' dismay).
You watch each other's games hoping to see your rival lose. And along the way, you learn the other team. You know their strengths and weaknesses. You know their personnel. You know what they're trying to do on offense and defense. That familiarity only breeds further contempt.
And this season, there's so much at stake. Senior Day. The streak. The Commonwealth Cup. Commonwealth Clash points. The ACC Coastal crown. A possible berth in the Orange Bowl to the winner. And it's Hokie Defensive Coordinator Bud Foster's last season.
The confluence of factors makes this the most consequential game in the rivalry in quite some time.
Virginia (8-3, 5-2) and Virginia Tech (8-3, 5-2) kick off at noon on ABC from Scott Stadium.
The Hoos will be in all blue for this one.
Some people call these the blueberry set. I like to call them the night stalkers because it sounds tougher. And the Hoos do look pretty tough in these.
But if it's a noon game, I guess night stalkers are out the door. So, blueberry it is? I still think we need a better name.
Fifteen in a row is all you need to know. Everyone is tired of hearing about it.
After last season's overtime loss at Lane Stadium, I'm convinced a supernatural power is at work. Al Groh, who owns the last victory for UVA in the series (2003), did something to anger the football gods while coaching the Hoos. This is the penance. You can't convince me otherwise.
I'd be down with an exorcism or any other suggestion to cleanse the McCue Center of this demon.
I'm only being half facetious. No, really.
Virginia Tech has beaten Virginia in the past 15 matchups. Last year was the first OT game in the series— Winsipedia (@Winsipedia) November 26, 2019
VT would kick a field goal in OT, then on UVAs possession the quarterback would fumble the ball and give the Hokies the win#Hokies #GoHoos #VTvsUVAhttps://t.co/fEJpjbd8cH pic.twitter.com/kQhv1hh9UN
Keys To Victory
Everything is important this week. No detail is too fine or too small. I give the program credit for embracing the challenge and rivalry head on under this coaching staff. Coming from the Holy War rivalry, they understand the place they occupy in college football. In order to gain credibility within the state, they know that they have to win this game eventually. The sooner, the better!
Here's where I'll have my focus.
The Mental Approach
Embracing the rivalry and taking ownership of the streak naturally adds a level of pressure for everyone on the UVA sideline. It's a fact. It's also not an issue as long as it's mitigated. It's actually a healthy element during preparation for this game going all the way back to winter workouts at the conclusion of last season. The pressure is motivating.
Once the game kicks off, however, if it persists it can then become problematic. We've seen it all too often on the Wahoo sideline. The pressure causes doubt, hesitancy, tentativeness.
Instead, the Hoos must play bold and inspired. They must walk right up to the edge without crossing it. Channel the aggression in the correct direction. We've seen UVA players make costly, bone headed penalties in this rivalry because their aggression was undisciplined.
This will be a difficult game to win. But the Hoos have trained for moments like this all offseason. The program prides itself on doing hard things together. They've accomplished many difficult things both on and off the field. Use that. Use the bonds and trust created in those moments to be confident.
It's the only way. The Hokies will be both confident and mentally strong for all four quarters.
There was a time when the special teams matchup was a tremendous mismatch in Virginia Tech's favor. Those times have changed.
The 2019 UVA special teams are some of the best in program history.
As of November 24, CFB Focus (@cffmwachsman) showed that ESPN gave the Hoos high marks in their special teams efficiency rankings.
ESPN SPECIAL TEAMS EFFICIENCY— CFB Focus 🏈 (@cffmwachsman) November 24, 2019
1 Memphis 78.7
2 Penn State 76.5
3 Virginia 75.2
4 Houston 74.6
5 Duke 73.0
6 Washington 70.2
7 Georgia Southern 69.9
8 Cincinnati 68.7
9 Iowa 68.5
10 San Diego State 67.5
Special Teams efficiency is graded on a 0-100 scale. It's based on special teams contribution to scoring margin on per-play basis, adjusted for strength of opposing special teams faced per CFB Focus.
The UVA kick return team is the star of the group. Wahoo fans have become accustomed to Joe Reed's heroics. But in recent weeks both Tavares Kelly and Seneca Milledge have flashed returning kicks as well.
Nash Griffin has proven to be a more than adequate replacement for Lester Coleman at punter. Billy Kemp has stabilized the punt return unit while proving elusive in short spaces. And Brian Delaney has become consistent at place kicker.
In fact, the only unit that seems to be in need of some improvement would be the kickoff coverage unit. But the Hoos are recording touchbacks on 70% of their kickoffs this season (49 of 70).
Despite Frank Beamer's retirement following the 2015 season, the legacy of Beamer Ball still thrives in Blacksburg. And while the Hokies' special teams units are nowhere near as fearsome as they have been in the past, there won't be many Wahoo fans completely confident that a game changing play is not lurking in the game's third phase Friday afternoon.
If the Hoos are to win this game, they must play a clean game here. Ideally, they'll make a game changing play or two in their favor. But at minimum, they must play the Hokies to a draw.
The Kitchen Sink
It's the regular season finale. You've lost 15 in a row to your rival. There's absolutely no excuse to hold anything back in this game.
The Hoos must throw everything they have at the Hokies without being reckless. If you want a reminder of reckless as it pertains to this rivalry, look no further than Bronco and company's first game in the rivalry played at Lane stadium in 2016. The Hoos lost that game 52-10. For some reason, the staff thought it a good idea to rotate Kurt Benkert, Matt Johns, and even Connor Brewer at quarterback from play to play.
Crazy shit like this needs to stay buried deeply in the depths of Scott Stadium. But everything else is up for grabs.
It all begins with the coaches and how they approach the game plan and play calling. They cannot expect to win this game doing everything they've put on film through eleven games so far. They have to be in attack mode with new wrinkles. Break tendencies and rely on the self scouting done during bye weeks.
This goes especially for UVA's offense. There's a lot more confidence that the defensive side of the ball will have a viable plan. And this isn't meant to point a finger simply in Robert Anae's direction. Something inexplicable happens to an UVA offensive coordinator when confronted with a Bud Foster defense. With rare exceptions, this has been the case since George Welsh retired.
The Hoos must play this game with that approach for all sixty minutes. If they learned nothing else from last year's overtime loss, they must know that the Hoos cannot exhale in this rivalry until the clock reads 0:00.
Here's what we know will happen during Friday's game.
On offense, the Hokies will use their excellent receiving corps to challenge UVA's depleted secondary. They're going to move quarterback Hendon Hooker around to try to further disrupt UVA's pass coverage as inexperienced defensive backs must decide between maintaining coverage or providing run support for a mobile QB.
On defense, the Hokies are going to be aggressive and fill the box with defenders. They're going to challenge Bryce Perkins and company to beat them over the top of the defense. Anything short or going from side to side will be met with a swarm of tacklers.
The Hoos actually did a really nice job meeting that challenge in the second half of last year's game. They erased at 14-0 halftime deficit while taking a 28-24 lead late in the 4th quarter before putting the offense back in its shell. Multiple chances to put the game away were then squandered before regulation ended 31-31.
This group of Hoos know they can defeat the Hokie defense. They have the blueprint and they've executed it successfully over nearly two quarters. But can they take that next step?
Prior to last season, I told myself that I was done picking UVA to win this game until they finally did it.
Then I got caught up in the hype and picked UVA to win despite my vow.
Before picking this game, I polled the other HoosPlace writers to get their pick for the game. From those that made a pick, here's how it shook out.
There you have it. It's the consensus of the HoosPlace writers that the streak will continue.