TOBIN: Spoiling the Hokies’ hopes
The Virginia football team has had a mess of a season. When coach Bronco Mendenhall took the helm and preached his “earned, not given” mantra, the Cavalier fan base hoped the team would find more success than it had in years past.
Yet, with a 2-9 record, the Cavaliers have fallen far short of these high expectations. Despite their disappointing play, there is one thing that the Cavaliers can do to somewhat salvage their season — beat bitter rival Virginia Tech and prevent them from making it to the ACC Championship.
History is not on the side of the Cavaliers in this game — the last time they beat the Hokies was in 2003. And, at the top of the ACC Coastal Division with an 8-3 record, Virginia Tech is undoubtedly favored to beat the Cavaliers, who are at the bottom of the division.
But, in a rivalry game, anything can happen. Additionally, Virginia has several motivations to give Tech a fight.
First, this game can help create momentum for Virginia heading into next season. Since its 34-20 victory against Duke on Oct. 1, the Cavaliers have lost six straight games by an average of just under 14 points per game. Their defense has only been able to keep opposing offenses to under 30 points in one of those six games, and their offense committed 14 turnovers over the same span — 10 of them coming from the last three games alone.
These losses have created a negative snowball effect, as the Cavaliers have been unable to pull out of a slump. To Mendenhall’s credit, though, he has continually remained calm and focused on the positives of Virginia’s play.
“I was impressed with our team’s preparation, fight and spirit for a lot of the game today,” Mendenhall said following the team’s 31-17 loss against Georgia Tech.
Mendenhall understands that progress requires patience. A victory over a bitter rival that Virginia has not beaten in 13 years would be monumental in providing the program something to build on and giving the Cavalier faith in the future.
Perhaps the bigger incentive for Virginia, though, is the chance to prevent Virginia Tech from making the ACC Championship.
Virginia Tech controls its own destiny — by beating North Carolina earlier in the season, they own the tiebreaker over them. Thus, with both teams sitting at a 5-2 record in conference play, a win against Virginia clinches a spot for the Hokies against Clemson in Orlando, Fla. Dec. 3.
Things are much more interesting if Virginia beats the Hokies, though. In the case of a Virginia Tech loss, the Hokies would need to hope that North Carolina loses to NC State — a team that is 2-5 in conference play and 5-6 overall.
A Tar Heel victory over NC State certainly is not a slam-dunk, and the Hokies can still make it to the conference championship if they lose to Virginia. But, a loss significantly lowers Virginia Tech’s chances — something in which any Cavalier can take delight.
On paper, it may seem like Virginia will get blown out — the disparity in records speaks for itself, and Tech has home field advantage. Honestly, the Hokies may run roughshod over the Cavaliers just like they had in 2011. But, I’m hopeful that this will be a close game.
Over the past four games, Tech has been a shell of itself compared to its dominant start. While it allowed roughly 17.9 points per game through its first seven matches, Tech’s defense has given up 29.5 over the last four. Sure, the team had an impressive fourth-quarter comeback to beat Notre Dame this past weekend. But the fact that it needed to score 13 points in the last quarter to beat a shaky 4-7 Fighting Irish team shows the irregularity of this Tech squad.
To win this game, the Cavaliers must force turnovers. Through the Hokies’ three losses, they turned the ball over a whopping total of 11 times. With only 15 turnovers, Virginia’s defense has the second least in the ACC. Yet, when Virginia forces errors, they can win games. Between both of their victories, the Cavaliers created seven turnovers. If they can channel that energy into their game against the Hokies, then they have a chance to win.
Last season, Virginia fell just short of preventing a then-5-6 Virginia Tech team from making a bowl game, as the Hokies won 23-20 on a field goal with less than two minutes remaining. This year, the Cavaliers can end their disappointing season on a positive note by spoiling the Hokies’ hopes of making it to the conference championship.