Whenever the time came, I had a feeling Virginia Tech's long winning streak against Virginia would end with a whimper or with the Hokies fighting and clawing to keep the Commonwealth Cup away from the Wahoos. There'd be no in between.
Early in the season, with UVa rolling and Tech struggling, it looked like it would be possible for that first scenario to play out in reality. But entering Friday's game, with the Hokies having won six of seven games, including two consecutive shutouts, it was apparent Virginia was going to be in for a battle if it was going to take back the Cup. Plus, there was more at stake than just bragging rights. The winner would also capture the ACC Coastal Division title.
I'm glad we had to take it.
The way the Cavaliers clinched the 39-30 victory felt symbolic. As UVa defensive end Mandy Alonso grabbed at the back and shoulders of Hokies quarterback Hendon Hooker, swung around to the ground, then reached up to pull down the redshirt sophomore and, in the process, poke the ball out out of his hands, it's like Alonso was reaching for the Cup. Desperately reaching for that victory which kept escaping this program's grasp for 15 years. Alonso managed to jar the ball loose from Hooker, and Eli Hanback -- fittingly, a senior who has never missed a start under Bronco Mendenhall -- was there to pounce on the opportunity. Game, set, match. The 'Hoos were Commonwealth of Virginia champions. Tech would not break hearts this season. One-and-a-half decades of frustration for the program and its fans went down the drain as Wahoo faithful poured onto the field after a final minute that seemed to take an eternity.
As chaos ensued on the field, Bryce Perkins and Bronco Mendenhall embraced as Mendenhall began his interview with the sideline reporter. These men, each brought in to help resurrect a dormant program that was a doormat just a few short seasons ago, shared a quiet moment of "mission accomplished."
As he continued his interview, Mendenhall was emotional, yet calm. Celebratory, yet stoic.
"That streak is over," he said when asked the obvious question.
So how did the 'Hoos end their misery against their hated rival? It required a strong effort against a Tech team that took the lead on three separate occasions. But this time, Virginia, which let a prime chance to end the losing streak slip out of its hands last year in Blacksburg, would not be denied and was ready to finish the job. When the spotlight hit and a barn burner ensued, the moment was not too big for this group that has worked so hard to climb from the basement of the division to the top in four seasons. Let's take a look at the big plays and moments that defined the win:
First, what an excellent job by the defense in responding to adversity. Early on, UVa was solid, holding Tech to just two field goals on a pair of short fields, preserving a seven-point halftime lead. But as Tech took control in the third quarter to grab its first lead at 20-13 on two touchdowns, the defense looked gassed. Who would step up and make a play? I said that exact thing to my dad as I watched the game with him and Tech's offense scored 13, 20, 27, then 30 points. Who wanted to be a hero on defense? Turns out, when the bell rung for the final round, every player was willing to be that guy that wanted to step up and make a big play.
Let's look at the first sign that the defense was ready to change the narrative of the rivalry in the closing moments. Tech was driving like a knife through butter with the game tied at 27. But defensive tackle Aaron Faumui had seen enough. On first-and-10 at the UVa 27-yard line, Faumui stopped Tech RB Deshawn McClease for a loss of two yards. That play put the Hokies behind the sticks, and they had to settle for the field goal.
Next in line to make a play was linebacker Noah Taylor. After Virginia tied the game at 30, Tech got the ball back with plenty of time left to drive down the field and break Wahoo hearts. The Hokies advanced to the UVa 44 before a dropped pass and two false starts put them in third-and-20. For once, it looked like the Hokies were the ones melting down in crunch time. Hooker looked to pass close to the first-down marker, but Taylor, lanky at 6-foot-5, reached up and snagged the ball out of the air. It was actually the sophomore's second pick of the day, but this one was far more significant, with the other coming at the end of the first half on a Hail Mary. First down, Virginia. The defense set the offense up to go win it.
On the game-winning drive, every play was important. Perkins got it started the right way with a 9-yard completion to Joe Reed. A slant to Hasise Dubois was next, as the senior again showed why he might have the best hands in college football by ripping the ball down for the first down. On the next big play, Perkins started to hand off to Wayne Taulapapa before taking it out of his gut slyly and running around the left end for a first down. A penalty on Virginia and then two short gains set up third-and-15 at the Tech 40. UVa needed at least a few yards to feel good about a field goal try. Perkins found Tavares Kelly on the sideline for a 9-yard gain. Last year against the Hokies, Kelly dropped a pass that might have went for a touchdown. This year, he came through with the huge catch.
Let's talk about Brian Delaney. Twice this season he missed extra points. Against Florida State, his offense and defense bailed him out. Against Tech, Delaney bailed himself out. After UVa's first touchdown of the day, Delaney hooked his kick badly. UVa never got that point back, and it ended up being significant once Tech got out in front. Had UVa been up a point at 14-13, 21-20, etc., who knows what would've happened. We'll never know. What matters is that Delaney stepped up and boomed an all-timer in a pressure-packed situation. As he lined up for his 48-yarder to put the 'Hoos up 33-30, the burden of the program's 15-game losing streak to its archrival weighed on his shoulders. But he sure seemed to shrug the pressure off. It was a beautiful kick, a no-doubter. All that was left now was for the defense to seal the victory. And that's exactly what it did.
On the ensuing kickoff, McClease made a fatal error, fielding the short kick at the 18 but dropping to a knee, meaning that's where Tech had to start the drive. That ended up haunting the Hokies because of what happened next: three straight sacks. On the first, the secondary provided great coverage, making it hard for Hooker to look downfield. Eventually, linebacker Zane Zandier caught up with Hooker, who was dancing around in the pocket. Faumui put the finishing touches on helping Zandier bring Hooker to the ground. On the second sack, linebacker Matt Gahm flew in untouched and hit Hooker from his blindside. On third-and-21 from the 7, Alonso and Hanback made the game-sealing play. UVa sent only four pass-rushers on all of these sacks. It's not like defensive coordinator Nick Howell dialed up the kitchen sink. But Hooker had to look deep to pick up chunks of yardage, giving ample time for the linemen and linebackers to get to him. And with only four rushing, that meant UVa dropped seven back in coverage, and they did a good job. And as I mentioned, McClease's mistake ended up being huge. Because Tech started at the 18, the final sack and fumble ended up in the end zone.
The defense and that kick is what comes to mind from the end of the game, but of course, UVa doesn't get in that spot without Perkins' amazing game. The senior took a cue from Kyle Guy and kept a picture from the end of last season's game as his screensaver for the whole year. It shows him being comforted by Mendenhall after the game, which ended with Perkins fumbling in overtime. Perkins said he was motivated to never feel like again, and it certainly looked like it, as he finished with 311 yards through the air (his third most in 2019) and 164 yards on the ground (most in 2019) and three touchdowns to wreck defensive coordinator Bud Foster's final regular-season game and last appearance against UVa. Perkins' 475 total yards was second in program history only to a 490-yard performance by ... also Perkins against UNC this year.
Tale of two tapes— B Perk (@3_ToDaNeck) December 1, 2019
2018 Vs. 2019
Kept the picture on the left as my screensaver for a whole year after we lost, promised to never feel like that again. The hug hit a little different this year pic.twitter.com/6WUS6a5i3i
Early on, Foster's defense had no answer for Perkins' running ability. On Virginia's first drive, Perkins picked up a third-and-14 and a third-and-10 with his legs before ripping off his 39-yard score. The first long TD will be remembered, but don't forget those huge third-down conversions. Perkins' second long TD, from 67 yards, also came on third down. Tech's defense had shown immense improvement over the course of the season and came into the game having shut out opponents in nine straight quarters. But Foster's unit looked like it wasn't ready for the revenge Perkins sought.
The game could not have started much better for UVa, except for the missed extra point. After Virginia went up 6-0, the defense held firm, not even allowing Tech a first down. Taylor foreshadowed his huge day by sacking Hooker on the Hokies' first play from scrimmage, and Hanback stopped Hooker on third down just short of the line to gain. Those two plays signaled the physicality Virginia was going to play with throughout the day.
On Virginia's next drive, Perkins was hit and threw his only pick of the game, but the personal foul during the return was a big moment. Tech's Chamarri Conner -- starting for injured cornerback Caleb Farley -- returned the interception to Virginia's 14, but a blindside-block penalty pushed the Hokies all the way back to their own 44. UVa did a great job holding Tech to a field goal, but that swing in field position helped immensely. Cornerback Nick Grant made the final impact play on that drive, drilling Tre Turner on a run play on third-and-goal. Turner had a head of steam as he turned the corner, hunting the goal line, but Grant was up to the challenge, stopping him in his tracks. Showing awesome leadership, don't overlook Hanback's role in the play. After the stop, Grant started to talk a little smack to Turner, and Hanback pulled him away. That was such a savvy veteran move. Hanback understood the Cavaliers needed to let their play do the talking and not get drawn into getting unsportsmanlike conduct penalties. I wish all of the players took after Hanback in that regard, but unfortunately, Virginia did get involved in a couple of small scuffles and picked up a couple of penalties.
The next big defensive play was made by linebacker Jordan Mack, who, like Hanback, is a four-year starter. After UVa made it 13-3, Tech was putting together a promising drive as it passed midfield. Hooker completed a pass to Turner, who at first was fighting with Grant for the ball, and then as he turned to get the first down, Mack laid a picture-perfect hit on him, with Mack's helmet knocking the ball free, and it bounded right up to a waiting Alonso, who fell on it. Over the course of the losing streak, the ball seemed to not usually bounce Virginia's way, but it did a few times in this game. UVa didn't score on the ensuing drive, but it still took this scoring opportunity away from Tech.
When Virginia was driving to try to go up 16-3 or 20-3, I didn't have a problem with the calls that went against Dubois. First, Dubois and defensive back Divine Deablo were holding onto each other after Dubois made a 32-yard catch. At first, it looked like Deablo was pushing Dubois out of bounds, almost into the brick wall at the foot of the stands. But after closer observation, it certainly looks like Dubious had something to do with starting the scrum as well, as he had his hand in Deablo's jersey. The referee correctly called offsetting unsportsmanlike penalties. Next, Dubois tried to make a catch at the goal line and was called for offensive pass interference. I wouldn't have been surprised had the refs called defensive pass interference, but both players were hand-fighting, and then Dubois was the last one to push off. Unfortunately, the flag knocked UVa out of field goal territory.
The defense came up big in the second quarter when Virginia Tech returned a punt to its own 47. I was disappointed with UVa's punt and kick coverage teams, as it allowed this 28-yard punt return, a 35-yarder on the next drive, and in the fourth quarter, a 43-yard kick return. Luckily, on the first one, the defense allowed no points, and it only allowed two field goals after the other returns. Even though it can be overlooked with the exciting way in which the game ended, the defense playing that well with its back against the wall on multiple occasions was huge.
After the defense stopped Tech on the first short-field situation in the second quarter, the offense got the ball back but did nothing. On third-and-2 at the 18, Perkins did a good job of getting rid of the ball quickly as he passed to tight end Tanner Cowley on the sideline. But Cowley was hit right away by Armani Chatman and couldn't even fall forward to the 20. Cowley needed to do a better job there of at least falling forward through the first tackle attempt to pick up an extra yard. Instead, UVa had to punt, which led to another big return for Tech.
On Virginia Tech's second drive of the second half, wideout Damon Hazelton went to the ground for a 16-yard completion on third down, but upon review, the refs decided it was not a catch. I was surprised by the call and thought the play would've stood because I didn't think it was clear on the replay that it wasn't a catch. Obviously it was a big play, because Tech had to punt, and this came after it had already tied the game at 13 and had momentum. It was the only close call in the game that was overturned. Virginia safety Joey Blount's near-interception was called incomplete in the second quarter, and the play stood (rather than no points, Tech got a field goal). And the other reviewed play went in UVa's favor, with Dubois' tip-toe catch down the sideline on the final play of the third quarter standing as a reception. Overall, I was pleased with the reffing. The only call I remember being upset about was when a Tech defender grabbed Dubois' jersey and wasn't called for holding.
After Tech went up 20-13, Perkins and Reed jump-started UVa's offense. On second-and-8 at the Cavaliers' 23, Perkins found a wide-open Reed for a 42-yard catch-and-run. It wasn't a perfect throw by Perkins, but Reed caught up to it in time to make the big play. So often in this series, those plays weren't made by UVa, but Reed got the job done there. Virginia's offense hadn't really done anything of note since Perkins' second TD run, so this was a big play, but another one that could get overlooked because of the late-game fireworks. UVa tied the game on a 25-yard TD reception by Billy Kemp. Remember those Perkins' runs on third down? Kemp's catch came on third-and-10. Virginia only converted 5 of 14 third downs, but those were significant.
Down 27-20, this time, it was wideout Terrell Jana's turn to get the offense started, as he ran a nice route across the middle of the field and ended up with a 35-yard gain. Dubois' catch was next. Yes, he did an awesome job of getting a foot down, but how about just the catch in general? He displayed excellent concentration on the over-the-shoulder grab. On first down at the 8, Cowley made a one-handed grab and fought for 4 yards. When I saw the replay, my mind wandered. This was actually a big play, because what if he had just deflected the ball with one hand and not caught it? A Tech defender would've had a chance to pick the pass off. And fighting for yardage allowed Virginia to score a touchdown with two short run plays, first by Perkins and then by Tualapapa.
After the Hokies' field goal put them up 30-27, it looked like UVa was ready to take the lead back. On the first play of the drive, Perkins found Dubois down the middle of the field for 67 yards to the Tech 8. On the play, Chatman was defending Dubois and first tried to tackle him at the Tech 35, but Dubois stiff-armed him, and Chatman needed Reggie Floyd to come in and help him finish the tackle. With Dubois fighting off Chatman, Floyd should've done a better job of trying to hit the ball from behind, but instead, Dubois was unfazed, basically dragging both Hokies to inside the 10-yard line. Virginia only managed a field goal to tie, but the play was indicative of the physical play UVa brought to the game. Usually, it's the Hokies bringing more physicality to the rivalry, but not Friday.
My Last Game in Scott was ......... L E G E N D A R Y ! 🤞🏾 pic.twitter.com/nzLiqkLM0S— Krazy8🎱 (@DuBois_5k) December 1, 2019
And, with the game tied at 30, it was time for the late-game heroics. It was so refreshing for Virginia to be the more physical team in this rivalry for once. It was so wonderful for Virginia to be the team making the clutch plays for once. It was awesome to see something like Delaney's miss not come back to bite Virginia, for the ball to bounce the Wahoos' way a couple of times, for UVa to actually benefit from a couple of the close calls. On Black Friday, perhaps the football gods had seen enough. It was time to reward the Cavaliers. But in reality, it's because Perkins had seen enough. Dubois had seen enough. Reed had seen enough. Hanback had seen enough. Mack was fed up. Alonso was fed up. Faumui was done with it all. Taylor was tired of hearing about it. It was time to knock the Hokies out and bring the Cup back to Charlottesville.