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Football hosts Virginia Tech for a must-watch rendition of the Commonwealth Clash

Virginia will need to be at its best to eliminate a hated nemesis from bowl game contention in the final regular season game of 2023

<p>Fans are hoping for a different outcome than the last time Virginia hosted, resulting in a heartbreaking 29-24 loss.</p>

Fans are hoping for a different outcome than the last time Virginia hosted, resulting in a heartbreaking 29-24 loss.

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Approaching the season finale of football, Virginia is currently undefeated against Virginia Tech in the Commonwealth Clash with Saturday’s contest serving as the final fall matchup. Coach Tony Elliott has the Cavaliers (3-8, 2-5 ACC) hovering around the preseason expectations of 3.5 wins, but regardless of the results from each game so far, arguably none carry the significance of a hypothetical win against the rival Hokies (5-6, 4-3 ACC). Both programs are also in a rebuilding phase, but upperclassmen certainly remember a bitter 29-24 defeat in the most recent matchup back in 2021. 

A Cavalier victory would eliminate Virginia Tech from postseason play. A win would also establish pole position in a new era of the rivalry, and push Elliott’s squad over the preseason win total expectations. Various impactful storylines are at play and a gritty football game that will likely be decided late in the fourth quarter is at hand as Virginia attempts to turn the Hokies into a Thanksgiving roast.

Key matchups

Graduate student wide receiver Malik Washington versus whoever is forced to guard him

Washington just became Virginia’s single-season record holder for receptions and yards. It is statistically factual that he is having the greatest receiving season in school history, and he has been essentially unstoppable for months. Virginia Tech simply has no defender even remotely capable of hindering the offensive superstar, and the only question will be how legendary Washington’s final stats are. Junior cornerback Dorian Strong will likely draw the matchup, and his six pass deflections with three interceptions are respectable — but ultimately no match for Washington and his 96 catches for 1,311 receiving yards. 

Virginia inside linebackers versus sophomore quarterback Kyron Drones

With 592 yards and four touchdowns as a rusher, Drones is a dynamic dual-threat quarterback with a knack for extending plays. Fortunately for the Cavaliers, they have a fearsome tandem at inside linebacker to defend both the run and the pass with force. Freshman Kamren Robinson and junior James Jackson both have a nose for the football — Robinson had a pick-six at No. 9 Louisville and Jackson caught the famous game-winning interception at then-No.10 North Carolina. 

Drones has a remarkable ability to take off running without a moment’s notice or stand tall in the pocket to deliver an accurate throw under pressure — in a similar fashion to Lamar Jackson of the Baltimore Ravens. One of the Cavalier linebackers will likely be tasked with defending Drones one-on-one and will need to win the critical matchup in order to achieve victory. 

Junior safety Jonas Sanker versus Virginia Tech wide receivers

Sanker had a massive forced fumble against the Blue Devils Saturday, and would have registered another one had the play not been incorrectly ruled as an incomplete pass. As for the whole season, Sanker’s 97 total tackles and 10 pass deflections both lead the Cavaliers. He has been essential as the last line of defense and will have his hands full against a Hokie offense that has five players with at least 20 receptions. 

As a Charlottesville local, the Commonwealth Clash carries great significance for Sanker. Now as one of Virginia’s brightest stars, he will have the opportunity to play a major role in what could be the program’s first win against Virginia Tech since 2019. Sanker mentioned how much the win would mean to the program as it aims for an upward trajectory heading into 2024 after the team’s most recent victory.

“Honestly, I think if we win this next one, or when we win this next one, I think it’s just going to say so much more about the heart of this team and I think people are going to really see that this team has no quit,” Sanker said. 

Keys to victory

Rally around freshman quarterback Anthony Colandrea, and no offensive turnovers

Colandrea had his best showing of 2023 in a 30-27 win over Duke, highlighted by no turnovers and over 60 yards rushing. He was named the ACC Rookie of the Week as well as the College Football Network Freshman of the Week for his efforts. The Cavaliers will require an interception-free effort to end the season with a win, and Colandrea will be up to the task as a rising superstar who continually improves each week. Virginia Tech caught an interception in three of their five wins this season and will challenge Colandrea to be at his best, which he feels confident in heading into Saturday.

“After this game versus Tech — after we beat Virginia Tech — this program is going to shoot up and everyone in the country is going to know about us,” Colandrea said.

Stop the run 

While Virginia Tech’s offense is a balanced attack, the run game is the most important component. The team has averaged a respectable 168.6 rushing yards per game, but were held to just 11 rushing yards against Purdue and 68 against Louisville in two crushing losses. Defensive coordinator John Rudzinski will have to prioritize stopping Drones and junior running back Bhayshul Tuten, who has nine total touchdowns in 2023. 

Rudzinski’s unit will look to be aggressive early and often, particularly up front on the defensive line. Turning Hokie gains of one or two yards into losses of multiple yards will go a long way towards setting the tone defensively and energizing a home crowd that has only seen two wins versus Virginia Tech in the 21st century. 

“We gotta defend our turf. It doesn’t matter who is coming in here, this is our house,” Elliott said. 

Positive plays on first down, then big plays after

Last Saturday, the Cavaliers got in a rhythm of running the ball for a medium-size gain then throwing deep downfield for explosive plays of more than 15 yards and finding success with the strategy. The tactic led to lengthy scoring drives that took game clock away from the opponent, which is valuable versus a Hokie squad that will aim to use the same concept. 

The highly anticipated game will kick off at 3:30 p.m. at Scott Stadium on ACC Network, where Virginia Tech is currently favored by three points.

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