Virginia football fell to Virginia Tech 33-15 in the battle for the Commonwealth Cup Saturday night at Lane Stadium. The Hokies (5-6, 5-5 ACC) burst out to an early 27-7 lead against the Cavaliers (5-5, 4-5 ACC) before maintaining the upper hand throughout the second half to bring the Cup back to Blacksburg. Controversial play-calling and a poorly played first half hurt Virginia as the Cavaliers struggled to muster any offense against a solid Hokie defense.
“Hats off to [Virginia Tech], they’re a great team,” sophomore linebacker Nick Jackson said. “I thought we could’ve played better ... It hurts, we poured our hearts into this season, we poured our hearts into this game.“
With junior quarterback Braxton Burmeister getting the nod under center for the Hokies, the Virginia Tech offense immediately went to work. On the third play of the drive, Hokie star graduate student running back Khalil Herbert tore off a 39-yard run, but a holding call two plays later on junior outside linebacker Christian Darrisaw eventually stifled the Hokies’ progress. Senior kicker Brian Johnson would subsequently knock in a 46-yard field goal to score the first points of the game.
Not allowing the Hokies’ score to rush them, the Cavaliers calmly marched down the field, mixing pass and run and taking advantage of sophomore quarterback Brennan Armstrong’s strong short and intermediate accuracy. Across 14 plays, Armstrong spread the ball to three different receivers en route to finding junior quarterback Keytaon Thompson on an 11-yard touchdown pass to give Virginia a 7-3 lead with 5:33 left in the first frame.
Looking for a response to Virginia’s hot start, Burmeister and the offense picked up where they left off, relying on the passing attack to establish a rhythm. The quarterback completed three crucial third down conversions with his arm to move Virginia Tech deep into Cavalier territory. On the 17th play of the drive, junior wide receiver Tre Turner scored from six yards out on a jet sweep play, restoring a three-point Hokie lead.
On Virginia’s ensuing drive, the Cavaliers cooled off from their strong start, going three-and-out. However, Virginia Tech junior tight end James Mitchell muffed the punt, which was subsequently recovered by redshirt freshman linebacker Hunter Stewart. While the Cavaliers had great field position and a golden opportunity to jump on the Hokies, they went three-and-out, and senior kicker Brian Delaney missed the 39-yard field goal to keep the score at 10-7 just under five minutes into the second quarter.
After holding the Cavaliers to an empty possession, the Hokies looked to extend the lead on their next possession. Returning to his natural position at tight end, Mitchell atoned for his earlier mistake, shaking loose behind the Virginia secondary for a 41-yard catch on an early third-and-2. However, the Virginia defense held strong on the next set of downs, sparked by a key second-down tackle from senior safety Joey Blount. For his second attempt of the game, Johnson knocked through a 47-yard field goal to double the Hokie lead.
The Cavaliers’ offensive woes continued on their next possession, fizzling out following a poor throw by Armstrong to wide-open freshman wide receiver Lavel Davis Jr. The defense stayed on the same frequency as the offense, allowing a 76-yard touchdown run by Herbert on the Hokies’ first offensive play which extended the Virginia Tech lead to 20-7.
Virginia sputtered once again on offense, unable to muster any answer to a dynamic Hokie defense. Armstrong struggled to connect with his receivers and had his ground game halted by the Virginia Tech front seven. Following a punt by senior punter Nash Griffin, the Hokies pieced together a five-play, 86-yard touchdown drive in less than two minutes, capped off by a 60-yard pass from Burmeister to sophomore wide receiver Tayvion Robinson to extend Virginia Tech’s lead to 27-7.
The Cavaliers were outdone by the Hokies on both sides of the ball in the first half, unable to string together solid plays after a strong first drive. Offensively, the Hokies outgained the Cavaliers 332-136 in yards, as Burmeister, Herbert and the rest of the Virginia Tech offense were firing on all cylinders.
After deferring the opening kickoff, the Cavaliers received the second half kickoff, needing points to cut into the Hokie lead. Failing to muster any offense on the first set of downs, Virginia lined up to punt, but ended up executing a perfect fake on a pitch and catch from Griffin to Jackson. However, the Cavaliers squandered the golden opportunity and punted three plays later.
“Obviously, we’d like to have more production on our side, and I think we put [our] defense in a tough position,” senior wide receiver Terrell Jana said. “That wasn’t a good reflection of who we are as an offensive team.”
The Hokies sought to pile onto their already commanding lead, piecing together a strong drive that eventually brought them to the Virginia 30-yard line. After losing some ground, Johnson completed a 47-yard field goal to extend the Virginia Tech lead to 30-7 just over halfway into the third quarter.
Starting to feel a greater sense of urgency, Armstrong and the Cavaliers attempted to right the ship, engineering a seven-play, 57-yard drive. Armstrong found senior tight end Tony Poljan twice on the drive, with his second pass to the Central Michigan transfer being a 23-yard touchdown toss. The Cavaliers would then convert a two-point attempt by way of a pass from Armstrong to Jana, cutting the Hokie lead to 30-15 with 4:50 to go in the third quarter.
Feeding off the new energy established from the offense, Coach Bronco Mendenhall’s defense made a huge defensive stand on their most important possession of the game. The Cavaliers forced a fourth-and-1 at the Virginia Tech 47-yard line, but Coach Justin Fuente elected to play conservatively and punt the ball away.
The offense initially continued where it left off, as Armstrong connected with Davis Jr. on a 29-yard pass, energizing the Cavalier sideline. Nonetheless, two plays later, Armstrong threw the ball directly to Hokie freshman defensive back Dorian Strong, who returned the ball 27 yards to the Virginia 39-yard line. Virginia Tech subsequently capitalized on this turnover, setting up a 30-yard field-goal attempt that was easily knocked in by the reliable Johnson.
While the Cavaliers once again started their drive on a positive note, a Hokie defense looking to put the game away for good sacked Armstrong two straight times to force a punt at fourth-and-16.
Having the game all but wrapped up, the Hokies started to pound the ball down the middle, draining as much time off the clock as possible. While the Cavaliers got the ball back with 3:58 left, Armstrong’s pass was picked off by senior defensive back Divine Deablo on the second play of the drive. Virginia forced a quick three-and out from the Hokies, but their final offensive push was too little too late, as Virginia Tech took the Commonwealth Cup, 33-15.
“Any game that we don’t play well in or that we don’t win is a challenge,” Mendenhall said. “If it ends the season, that’s just one more thing to remember. Doesn’t take away from the commitment and all the effort the guys have put in at this point.”
Despite leading 7-3 early, the Cavaliers were chasing their offensive and defensive miscues for the rest of the game, being outplayed on both sides of the ball. The Hokie defense in particular was impressive in halting Armstrong, who finished the evening with 259 passing yards but just 51 yards rushing.
Pending their decision on whether or not to play a bowl game, the Cavaliers will either end their season with the loss in Blacksburg or play in an ACC-tied bowl game later this month.