Even after a disappointing but not completely unexpected loss against Notre Dame, Virginia football still finds itself able to control its destiny on the way to an ACC Championship. If the Cavaliers (6-4, 4-2 ACC) win both of their upcoming games against Pitt and Virginia Tech, the Coastal Division crown is theirs. While it may seem like a simple task at first, the Hokies (5-5, 3-3 ACC) always serve as a roadblock Virginia can never seem to get past.
Virginia Tech — although coming off of a victory against Duke — is once again not living up to the standards of its fans, with yet another season close to .500 that put former Head Coach Justin Fuente squarely on the hot seat before recently parting ways with the program. The offense in particular has struggled to find its footing, scoring just over 24 points per game — good for just 13th in the conference. Everything could be forgiven, however, if the Hokies travel two hours north on Thanksgiving weekend and bring the most important trophy of the year back home to Blacksburg.
Players to watch
Virginia junior quarterback Brennan Armstrong
Perhaps the best thing Armstrong could have done to prove he is the best quarterback in the conference was to not play against Notre Dame. With true freshman Jay Woolfolk at the helm, the Cavalier offense simply could not get anything to work correctly, leading to a 28-3 loss with a scoreline that was generous to Virginia. Woolfolk absolutely showed promise, but no one could replace the connections Armstrong has formed throughout the season to make the Virginia offense function like a well-oiled machine. Unfortunately, Head Coach Bronco Mendenhall was still unable to give an update on Armstrong in the postgame press conference of the Notre Dame game, so it is still unclear whether the Davey O’Brien Award semifinalist will be able to suit up in either of the last two games. However, one thing is for certain — no player in potentially all of college football means more to the success of his team than Virgnia’s star quarterback, and the importance of whether or not he watches from the sidelines cannot be understated.
Virginia Tech junior running back Raheem Blackshear
On the Hokies’ side, no player has been improving as the season goes on more than Blackshear. The junior from Philadelphia was spectacular against Duke, rushing for 117 yards on 9.8 yards per carry in a blowout of the Blue Devils. Even in losses, the Rutgers transfer has been terrorizing defenses lately, averaging seven yards each time he has been handed the ball over the last three games. To make matters worse, Virginia’s run defense has been a struggle all season to say the least, most recently giving up nearly 250 yards to sophomore running back Kyren Williams and Notre Dame in a loss. Blackshear has been playing his best football as of late, and if he gets going, it could be a scary sight for the Cavaliers.
Keys to the game
Keep the passing attack at bay
The Hokies have not been known for their passing prowess over the 2021 season, averaging less than 200 yards per game. But junior quarterback Braxton Burmeister has shown the ability to extend plays and keep drives alive both with his arm and legs. In order for Virginia to have a strong day on defense, one of the units has to play well, and it could very well be easier to stop the Hokies through the air rather than on the ground. Burmeister has completed just 54 percent of his passes on the season, and the Hokies’ offense has generally struggled to put up points in that manner. Virginia may give up some yards on the ground — as noted previously, Blackshear is going to get his yards. But by winning the battle in the air, the Cavalier secondary — a unit that is already depleted due to the loss of senior safety De’Vante Cross to an injury — can keep the game winnable for the offense in the fourth quarter, no matter who is behind the center for Virginia.
Feed the ball to the running back corps
Should Armstrong not play against the Hokies, there is still absolutely a way to score on the Virginia Tech defense. While the run stop struggles the Cavaliers have had themselves are evident, the Hokies have not been exactly the most solid on offense either, averaging the fourth most rushing yards per game given up in the ACC. Although senior running back Wayne Taulapapa was also out against Notre Dame due to a head injury suffered against BYU, the rest of Virginia’s running backs have really come into their own as the season progressed. Graduate student Devin Darrington has shown his explosiveness — a trait running backs have needed at Virginia for years — the past few games, and sophomore Mike Hollins has become a more complete player this season, even though he has also dealt with injury troubles. If Armstrong is unable to play against the Hokies, the talent around Woolfolk has never been better to take advantage of a subpar Virginia Tech rush defense. If the Cavaliers are able to rush for 200 yards, which they have been proven to be able to do, the game absolutely becomes possible for Virginia to take its second straight home victory over the Hokies.
In a statistic that is sure to make even casual Virginia fans wince, Virginia Tech has won 16 out of the last 17 Commonwealth Cups, with the lone victory coming in 2019 on the legs and arm of former Cavalier quarterback Bryce Perkins. If history is to be on Virginia’s side, then the offense has to be operating at full strength come Nov. 27. If every piece is there, there is no doubt that Virginia’s offensive attack is the best unit on the field, but if that is not the case, prepare for a low-scoring slog that could still go either way.
The two teams will match up in Scott Stadium Nov. 27. The kickoff time and TV broadcast are both yet to be determined.