One loss does not define a season. It can define a program, though.
The Virginia football team lost its 14th straight game against in-state rival Virginia Tech on Friday night, this one a mundane 10-0 setback at Scott Stadium. The Hokies made a field goal and the Hoos didn’t. The Hokies scored a touchdown after a turnover and the Hoos didn’t. That’s the game summary in a nutshell.
For UVA fans, it’s just another sour end to a season and a holiday week. It doesn’t matter what the scenario has been for these 14 years, the Virginia Tech chapter has read the same way. The bowl teams of 2004, 2005, 2007, 2011, and 2017 all lost. The worst teams of 2009, 2010, and 2016 all got rolled. The need-it-to-go-bowling teams of 2006, 2008, and 2014 came up short too. Virginia suffered through shutouts three times in the 14 games.
In other words, the rivalry game with the Hokies generally reflects how the team looks at that particular time. The Hoo teams with bad records haven’t been close, the ones that were almost there couldn’t get over the hump when it mattered, and the teams with good records just couldn’t figure out the matchup. There’s a lot of minutiae in there – the play in the trenches Friday night, the timeout caper in 2012, special teams miscues in plenty of years, and so on – but the overview doesn’t need as many details.
Virginia can’t beat Virginia Tech. At least not lately. And that, for fans at least, is the ultimate barometer for the program.
Make no mistake, it doesn’t erase what this year’s team did in the previous 11 games. These Cavaliers hit the reset button in so many ways. They ended a seven-game slide against North Carolina, the old guard’s chief rival, for starters. They took care of Duke for a second straight season and rolled Connecticut. They pulled off a shocker at Boise State. That all helped end the bowl drought that tracked back to 2011.
Along the way, the Hoos put together a better football product too. They ended a 42-game streak with at least one turnover by starting the season with no turnovers in three of the first four games. They’re one of the nation’s least penalized teams (25th nationally at 4.9 per game), Friday night’s late meltdowns by Doni Dowling and Andrew not withstanding. They scored 30 points or more three times and held opponents to 14 points or fewer three times.
So there are signs of progress and the coaches and players framed Friday night’s disappointing setback in those terms. They even talked of closing the gap (UVA felt like it matched VT’s edge and physicality in a lot of areas and didn’t back down from the challenge) with Virginia Tech in a closely contested game compared to the 2016 debacle that ended 52-10.
The Wahoos better hope the gap is closing, though. Because no matter how much progress is made elsewhere, taking the program to consistent results and better heights will require solving the Hokie puzzle.
Unlike Bronco Mendenhall’s first head coaching gig where the BYU-Utah game truly was only about bragging rights, the Virginia-Virginia Tech game matters much more than that. The Hokies are a division opponent in the ACC standings. They represent a direct barrier to either the ACC Championship Game or better bowl positioning in the conference pecking order every single year.
There are also tangential effects of the current string as well. Ticket sales and donations top that list. Some fans simply aren’t going to buy back in consistently until Virginia beats Virginia Tech. And then there’s attendance. Friday night’s crowd at Scott Stadium was announced as 48,609. That’s the only time this season it ticked above 40,000 and a large swath of the fans were wearing maroon.
Attendance matters both in recruiting – atmosphere is important to many recruits – and in homefield advantage that can help with “the momentum and home field advantage that possibly could turn a game” in Mendenhall’s words. Or to put that latter phrase a different way: it’s more fun.
Mendenhall addressed the attendance question earlier in the week:
“I think it’s reflective of connection with the program, belief in the program, and sincere and authentic partnership with the program. So I’ve recognized and noticed all those things. While we’re still at the front end of building our program, my hope is – and I have a picture right outside of my office that shows Scott Stadium completely full. I’m looking at it now. I can’t see an empty seat. The grass hill is completely full. I aspire for this community in this state to want and be connected with our program at that level again. And I know it’s earned.”
A belief in, connection with, and authentic partnership with the program … simply put, that’s going to be hard to achieve if you can’t beat your chief rival. For the community and state to truly feel connected to Virginia football, there has to be a belief that the rivalry showdown, the game that Mendenhall likened to a state championship, is winnable. That there’s a happy payoff for the emotional investment. That there’s a chance to be smug – or at least wearing a really, really satisfied grin – in the office at some point.
Or to put it a different way: more fun.