It has all come down to this — it is more than just a rivalry game. Virginia is set to play No. 23 Virginia Tech Friday afternoon at Scott Stadium for the ACC Coastal title. The winner will face No. 3 Clemson in the ACC Championship game Dec. 7 in Charlotte, N.C.
Despite some tough losses, the Cavaliers (8-3, 5-2 ACC) have positioned themselves to achieve all their goals this season. They came into the season looking to win the ACC Coastal and are now one win away from doing it. The red-hot Hokies (8-3, 5-2 ACC) are in the way.
A 15-year-long losing streak aside, the teams’ resumes are eerily similar. Beyond identical records, both Virginia and Virginia Tech have been dominant at home — 6-0 and 6-1, respectively — and have struggled on the road. Virginia has 365 points for and 252 points against, and Virginia Tech has 341 points for and 245 points against. The Cavaliers average 381.0 total yards and 323.2 yards allowed per game, and the Hokies average 381.4 total yards and 347.9 yards allowed per game. Both Virginia and Virginia Tech have won four out of five games going into this matchup.
Despite this similarity over the course of the season, it’s evident that Virginia Tech is playing its best football right now. Over the last nine quarters of football, the Hokies have outscored opponents 96-0. During this stretch, they have outgained opponents in yards 828-370. And these are not just any opponents — Virginia Tech has beaten its last three ACC opponents by a combined score of 109-17, including last week’s 28-0 trouncing of then-ACC Coastal title hopeful Pittsburgh.
Virginia Tech started the season 2-2 and lost 45-10 to Duke — at home. After that game, however, sophomore quarterback Hendon Hooker replaced senior quarterback Ryan Willis as the starter, and the Hokies have been 6-1. In their sole loss to Notre Dame, Hooker was sidelined by injury.
Virginia has a tough task in quelling Virginia Tech’s momentum. The Hokies’ associate head coach and defensive coordinator Bud Foster is in his final year at Virginia Tech, where he has been since 1987. After a slow start, Foster’s patented “lunch pail defense” is back and silencing opposing offenses. Junior linebacker Rayshard Ashby is its dominant force in the middle with 98 tackles and 4.5 sacks.
The Cavaliers have had to overcome substantial adversity to be in a position to win the ACC Coastal, including losing senior cornerback Bryce Hall — a team captain and midseason second team All-American — and junior safety Brenton Nelson to injury. Their secondary may be depleted, but players are stepping up and the front seven remains strong.
Offensively, Virginia is playing as well as it has this season. Against Liberty, the Cavaliers clicked on all cylinders, running for 227 yards and passing for 272 yards. The diversity of Virginia’s offensive display was particularly impressive, as four different rushers scored touchdowns Saturday. The Cavaliers will need to replicate this against a much better defense Friday.
Key battle: Perkins vs. Hooker
Senior quarterback Bryce Perkins and Hooker are both key in their teams’ success. Both quarterbacks are dynamic players who can pass and run the football and will have to be at their best to win Friday afternoon.
Hooker has passed for 1,134 yards, 10 touchdowns and 0 interceptions this season and has completely changed Virginia Tech’s offense since replacing Willis as the starting quarterback. Besides avoiding mistakes — Willis threw five interceptions in the four games he started — Hooker’s legitimate threat as a runner has also sparked the Hokies’ running game. Hooker has four rushing touchdowns this season. The last time Virginia faced a dual threat quarterback was when the Cavaliers faced Louisville sophomore Micale Cunningham. Cunningham rushed for 97 yards and a touchdown, and the Cardinals beat Virginia 28-21. The Cavaliers’ defense will have to be prepared for the challenge of facing Hooker.
Perkins — another dual threat quarterback — must continue his stellar play against a tough Virginia Tech defense. After an inconsistent start to the season, Perkins has been solid in the last three games. While he had nine touchdowns and eight interceptions through the first eight games of the season, he has had six touchdowns and zero interceptions over the last three games. He has also run for 248 yards and four touchdowns over the last three games. With numerous weapons at his disposal — especially junior wide receiver Terrell Jana and senior wide receivers Joe Reed and Hasise Dubois — and an increasingly creative playbook, look for Perkins to shine in what will be his final game at Scott Stadium.
The X-factor: Scott Stadium
Virginia is undefeated in football games played at Scott Stadium this season. The home field advantage cannot be discounted in this game, especially with increases in attendance from previous seasons. Virginia’s win over Florida State, for example, was the most highly attended football game in Coach Bronco Mendenhall’s tenure at Virginia. In 2017, the last time the two teams met at Scott Stadium, the announced attendance was 48,609 fans. Look for a significantly bigger crowd Friday afternoon that could have an impact on the game’s outcome.
The pathway to victory: Win the battle in the trenches
The battle in the trenches is important in any football game, but it carries particular importance in this game. One of the primary reasons why Virginia Tech has made its impressive turnaround is improved play on the offensive and defensive lines.
On the defensive end, the Hokies are getting better pressure on the quarterback and getting past blocks to stop the run. Last week, Virginia Tech held Pittsburgh to just 60 yards rushing on 27 carries. Virginia ran the football well last week against Liberty, especially because of good offensive line play. Young players like sophomore offensive tackle Bobby Haskins are improving in run protection and will need to continue to play well against a strong Hokie defensive line. This is also true in pass protection — the line needs to give Perkins time to throw and scramble for yards if needed.
On the offensive end, Virginia Tech’s line of all underclassmen has improved substantially. Besides the addition of Hooker as starting quarterback and improved running back play, the line has been critical in the Hokies’ improved running game. Freshman center Bryan Hudson stands out as a player who has come in with little experience to deliver for Virginia Tech. Hudson has started every game since the third week of the season. The Hokies’ line uses a zone-blocking run scheme, similar to that used by Louisville, which Virginia struggled to defend. In order to disrupt the Hokies’ offense, the “Havoc Hoos” will need to blow up the blocks on the line to limit the running game and get pressure on Hooker. Pressure on Hooker will lead to turnovers, which Virginia Tech has done a good job of limiting recently.
The bottom line: This is a huge opportunity
Right up there with “Earned, not given” and “The Standard” is the mantra “Beat Tech” for Mendenhall and Virginia football. Mendenhall has accomplished a lot in his turnaround of the Virginia football program, including bringing the Cavaliers back to the postseason and winning a bowl game for the first time since 2005 last year. But he still hasn’t won the Coastal division or beaten Virginia Tech, despite coming up inches short in the overtime loss last season.
In many ways, “Beat Tech” has become emblematic of the only accomplishments eluding this program to date. Virginia can change that Friday afternoon, and in doing so, win the ACC Coastal title for the first time ever.
Kickoff is slated for 12:00 p.m. at Scott Stadium. The game will be broadcast on ABC.