VON STORCH: What it meant to win the Commonwealth Cup

A battle for school pride extends beyond the field

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The win against Virginia Tech carries special importance for Virginia sports fans.

Courtesy Virginia Athletics

When Virginia and Virginia Tech played Friday, it had been 16 years to the day when the Cavaliers (9-3, 6-2 ACC) last defeated the Hokies (8-4, 5-3 ACC). More accurately, as a Charlottesville native, it had been 16 years of football despair.

Regardless of the Cavaliers’ final record, a loss to Virginia Tech would put a blemish on the season. Before Friday, the burden of the streak was so heavy that the difference between a successful or failed season hinged on the very game.

Many long-time Virginia fans would gladly take a middling or even poor season with a win against Virginia Tech over a 10-win season followed by a loss in the rivalry. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say the players believe that as well.

In fact, a quick walk through the McCue Center — Virginia football headquarters — will reveal how much this single game means to the program. Through posters, plaques and television screens with “Beat Tech” visible at every turn, the importance of breaking the streak becomes painfully clear.

“I think the reality is to try to pretend the game isn’t important or that it’s not different — it is not real,” Coach Bronco Mendenhall said in his weekly press conference prior to the game. “It’s important to the University. It’s important to the state. It’s important to the U.Va. alumni, and so, it seemed important to me, because I like being transparent with my team, to acknowledge that.”

With preseason hype that was beyond any in over a decade — Virginia was picked to finish first in the Coastal — many felt that it might finally be the year that the Cavaliers take down the Hokies. Combine this with successful run up to the rivalry game, and Virginia looked poised to topple Virginia Tech.

Yet the Cavaliers were facing a resurgent Hokies team. Overcoming a rough start, Virginia Tech had reeled off wins in six of seven games and seemed to have much more momentum than Virginia despite having identical records.

All week, analysts were predicting that the combination of a resurgent Virginia Tech defense — under the leadership of legendary coordinator Bud Foster in his last regular season game — and the emotional hurdle of ending the streak would be too much for Virginia to overcome.

The only clear path to victory was for senior quarterback Bryce Perkins to take over and dominate. It seemed Perkins would have to replicate his performance against North Carolina, in which he amassed 490 total yards en route to a crucial road win.

However, as a Cavalier fan, it was difficult to think of a much better scenario heading into the game. Not only was Virginia playing to end the streak, but the winner would claim the ACC Coastal title and likely secure a spot in the Orange Bowl.

The high stakes made the Cavalier faithful turn out Friday afternoon. The announced attendance was 52,619, significantly more than the 48,609 fans that turned out for the rivalry game at Scott Stadium in 2017. The place was packed and buzzing for Virginia.

“For all those who attended today, I am grateful for their attendance, their support and for what it looked like in Scott Stadium,” Mendenhall said in a press conference after the game. “I had a vision of what that could be four years ago, and today was as close as I’ve seen to what is possible at Scott Stadium.”

Beyond implications for the football team in 2019, part of the reason so many orange and blue clad fans come to Scott Stadium for the Commonwealth Cup clash is school pride. The football game is the apex of the rivalry between Virginia and Virginia Tech. And for 15 consecutive years, Hokie fans held that point of dominance — despite Cavalier success in countless other sports — over Virginia.

Yet this year was different.

On cue, Perkins put together a heroic 475 yard performance — nearly 97 percent of the Cavaliers’ total offense — and the defense made just enough key plays in big moments to finally clinch a victory in the Commonwealth Cup.

Winning the game lifted the monkey off the back of not only the football program, but countless Cavalier fans in filling the only significant chink in their pride in Virginia athletics. Winning the game ended the streak once and for all and silenced years of Hokie football smack talk.

Nevertheless, there still have been many Hokie fans clinging to their football dominance, with tweets that read something like this — “Congratulations, U.Va. is now 1-15 over the last 16 games against us.”

Yet they cannot take away this win. The “Beat Tech” countdown clock in the Virginia football locker room at Scott Stadium shows how important this game is. It started at the beginning of the year and hit zeroes before the game Friday. The countdown is over, and Virginia reigns supreme.

At least for now.

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