Three-List Game Preview: Virginia Football Hosts Virginia Tech

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Here’s hoping Virginia football can send senior leaders Quin Blanding and Micah Kiser out with a win over VPI on Friday night. ~ Photo by Michael Ingalls

It has been 13 years since Virginia football defeated its in-state rival, the Virginia Tech Hokies. Led by senior All-ACC performers Quin Blanding and Micah Kiser, the 6-5 Cavaliers seek to put an end to this streak Friday night in Scott Stadium.

Some Virginia Tech victories have been lopsided, like last year’s contest in Blacksburg. UVA has had great chances in others, like in 2014 and 2015. The result remains the same, and the Cavaliers are looking to taste victory in this series for the first time since 2003.

In preparation for the 99th meeting between these two programs, Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall urged his players not to dwell on past defeats.

“I’ve talked about it all that I intended to to the team [the morning of November 20], just the brutal fact it’s been a long time,” Mendenhall said, referring to Tech’s winning streak over the Cavaliers. “Now that I’ve said that, there’s plenty of reason that is out of this current team’s control that have contributed to that. Once you acknowledge that I simply framed what can you control and that is their preparation, that is their mindset. That’s their work that we put in for this particular game. And to claim or have part of any of those previous years that’s really nothing that they can do about that of what’s happened in the past. They can’t control today’s practice and they control tomorrow’s practice and they control the next one. That’s really where I’m having them place their focus.”

While he doesn’t want his team to focus on the losing streak, Mendenhall did stress the importance of the matchup itself.

“It is a special game,” Mendenhall said. “[The players] ought to prepare like it is a special game. It is for, in my opinion, the state championship, which is an awesome thing to play for. And that deserves our very best preparation and intent and practice habits and work ethic and everything we can possibly do.”

Virginia Tech boasts an 8-3 overall record and is ranked No. 24 in the nation. The Hokies are 4-3 in the ACC, falling to the two 2017 divisional champions in Clemson and Miami as well as Georgia Tech. Virginia Tech escaped Blacksburg last Saturday with a 20-14 win over Pittsburgh, which had a 1st-and-goal from the Tech 1-yard line in the final minute but couldn’t score.

Bud Foster’s defense ranks No. 6 in the nation in scoring defense, holding opponents to 14.7 points per game. The Hokies have done an excellent job of defending in the red zone, allowing opponents to score only 16 times in 24 tries (66.7%). The “Lunch Pail Defense” has also excelled on third down, as teams are converting just 25% of third downs against Tech.

Virginia Tech has lost two defensive starters – defensive back Terrell Edmunds and defensive end Vinny Mihota — to injury this month and could be without another, Mook Reynolds, who is listed as questionable due to illness. The losses hurt, but this remains one of the nation’s stingiest units in the country. An inconsistent Virginia offense will have its hands full.

UVA’s defense, which still ranks no. 33 in the nation in total defense, has surrendered 30 or more points in three of its past five games. Pittsburgh scored 24 against the Cavalier defense (a punt return TD accounted for the other score there) and Georgia Tech put up 29 (an interception return provided the Yellow Jackets’ other TD).

Virginia Tech’s offense has struggled to score in the month of November, posting 10 points versus Miami, 15 points versus Georgia Tech, and 20 against Pitt. Quarterback Josh Jackson has passed for 2,600 yards and 18 touchdowns, both freshman records at Virginia Tech. Senior Cam Phillips is his top target and one of the best receivers in Tech history, setting school marks with 233 career receptions and 2,981 career receiving yards. Tech’s running game has featured several running backs as well as Jackson and is averaging 164 yards per contest.

Both UVA and Tech enter the regular season finale having lost two of three November contests. Will this finally be the year the Cavaliers break the streak? Virginia will need to showcase “complementary football” at its best for this to be the year, as Tech features a top defense, good special teams, and a capable offense that typically doesn’t hurt itself.

Virginia Football Essentials

Three Big Trends

1. Virginia’s offensive line is allowing opposing defenses to get to Kurt Benkert. The Virginia offensive line has allowed at least three sacks in five of the Cavaliers’ last six games. The opposing defense had four or more sacks in three of those games, including last week, when Miami brought Benkert down five times. Virginia Tech ranks 44th in the nation in sacks. Not dominant to be sure, but the Hokies have some talented players up front who can get after the quarterback and the Cavalier offensive line has had its problems as the season has progressed. A comfortable and confident Benkert is essential to Virginia’s chances.

2. Virginia’s run-game struggles. UVA has not rushed for over 100 yards in the last three games and barely eclipsed 100 yards rushing combined over the course of the past two games. Miami held the Hoos to 55 yards on 28 carries while Louisville locked down the Cavaliers to the tune of 63 yards on 28 carries. It’s clear the staff wants to put the ball in Benkert’s hands. However, Virginia needs some balance from its run game. This could prove difficult against a Tech D that held Pittsburgh to 55 yards total on the ground last weekend.

3. Josh Jackson’s passing struggles. The Virginia Tech freshman completed 57% or better of his passes in the Hokies’ first six games, including 65% or better in a stretch of four games that included Clemson. In his past five outings, Jackson has completed 74 of 142 passes, good for a 52.1 percentage. Another less-than-stellar passing effort would be a boost to the Virginia defense.

Three Big Questions

1. Can Virginia’s defense dominate? Coach Mendenhall is accurate when he says Virginia has to play complementary football to be in position to win games. All three phases have to play well. However, the defense can be the team’s anchor. While there have been some good moments, there hasn’t been a consistent, start-to-finish performance since North Carolina. UVA’s D needs to lead the way with a dominant effort on Friday.

2. Can Benkert eliminate the interceptions? Virginia’s senior quarterback threw only one interception in the Cavaliers’ first four games. He has thrown seven picks in the past seven games, however, including three Pick-6s. As outstanding as Benkert was against Miami, the Hurricanes’ Pick-6 tied the game at 28. Knowing how aggressive Virginia Tech is on defense, it’ll be crucial for Benkert to take care of the football.

3. Can Virginia win the special teams battle? Virginia Tech’s punt and kickoff coverage units have allowed the fewest total yards of any Power 5 squad. Conversely, the Hokies boast one of the most dangerous punt returners in the conference and perhaps the country in Greg Stroman, who has four punt return touchdowns in his collegiate career (two this season) and is second among all Power 5 punt returners with 384 yards this season. For Virginia, kick-off returner Joe Reed and punter Lester Coleman have come up big at times this season. In addition to plus efforts on coverage, Virginia will need these two to come through with big days against the Hokies.

Three Big Foes

1. Wide receiver Cam Phillips. Phillips’ 68 receptions almost doubles the next Virginia Tech receiver, Sean Savoy, a talented true freshman who has 39 catches on the year. The senior has 918 yards receiving and seven touchdowns, one of which proved to be the game-winner against Pittsburgh last week. Phillips has been Tech’s most consistent offensive weapon this season and is redshirt freshman quarterback Josh Jackson’s clear top target.

2. Linebacker Tremaine Edmunds. Edmunds, who has an NFL future ahead of him, is listed at 6’5”, 250 pounds, is extremely athletic and runs very well. He is also productive. He leads Virginia Tech in tackles (93), is second on the team in tackles for loss (11), and is third on the team in sacks (3.5). Edmunds a tremendous player who figures to give Virginia’s offense headaches.

3. Defensive tackle Tim Settle. Virginia Tech’s leader in tackles for loss with 12, the 6’3”, 335-pound Settle is a big part (literally and figuratively) of a very potent Virginia Tech defensive line. Settle and Ricky Walker give the Hokies two terrific defensive tackles Virginia will have to contain.

Hey Remember When …

Virginia last defeated Virginia Tech? November 29, 2003 to be exact. The Cavaliers overcame a 14-7 halftime deficit to defeat the Hokies, 35-21, in Scott Stadium. Matt Schaub passed for 358 yards and two touchdowns, Wali Lundy rushed for 89 yards and had three scores, and Heath Miller had 13 catches for 145 yards in the win.

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