The Virginia football team plays host to the Virginia Tech Hokies this week. Both teams share plenty of history together, but on Friday afternoon that history becomes irrelevant. As the Hoos have been saying this week, it is the 2019 Virginia Cavaliers vs. the 2019 Virginia Tech Hokies.
While we typically talk about the season both teams have had and their recent games in the introduction, that will not be the case this time. Like the series history, these recent games are thrown out the window. The Hoos and the Hokies both come in with 8-3 overall records and are 5-2 in the ACC. This week is all about both teams attempting to defeat their rival to claim the ACC Coastal Division crown and earn a matchup with the Clemson Tigers in the conference championship next weekend.
The Cavaliers came into this season with two goals: win the Coastal and beat Tech. They have the opportunity to accomplish both in one, sixty-minute contest.
1. Can a dominant Virginia Tech defense slow down a red-hot Virginia offense?
In their last two games, the Hokie defense has not given up a single point. By blanking Georgia Tech and Pittsburgh they became the first ACC team since Maryland in 1978 to force back-to-back shutouts in conference play. This defense has come a long way from surrendering 45 points at home to Duke back in September.
Tech will face a Cavalier offense that seems to have found its stride at the perfect time. In their last three games, the Hoos have averaged 42 points and nearly 500 yards of total offense. They have been able to move the ball down the field in a multitude of ways as Bryce Perkins has been beating teams through the air and on the ground, and the running backs have remerged in the offense.
The retiring Bud Foster, who has coached 33 seasons in Blacksburg including the past 25 as defensive coordinator, would love nothing more than to shut down his rival’s offense in his final Commonwealth Clash.
2. Who will win the matchup between the Hokie kickoff unit and the Cavalier return team?
As mentioned in numerous “Three List” previews this year, Virginia senior wide receiver Joe Reed has established himself as one of the best kickoff returners in school history. He is second in the FBS in average yards per return this season with just over 35 yards per return. Reed has also taken two to the house this year with returns of 100 and 95 yards. Due to a sore knee, he has not returned kicks for the Hoos in their last two games, but he is expected to be healthy and return to his normal role back there on Friday.
Having a healthy Reed return will be crucial for Virginia in the kickoff game as they face one of the best kickoff units in the country. Virginia Tech allows under 18 yards per opponent kickoff return, which ranks 15th among all FBS schools this season.
Winning this battle will have a direct impact on the first question asked, as the Cavaliers rely heavily on their kickoff unit to set them up with solid field position whenever the defense gives up points or to start games/halves.
3. Will the crowd be a factor?
It is no secret that the Virginia Athletics Department has done almost everything in their power to keep Hokie fans out of Scott Stadium for this game. They have created special restrictions for purchasing tickets in an effort to change the fact that there has been a plethora of Virginia Tech supporters at this game in Charlottesville in past years.
Fans on both sides were noticeably disappointed in the early, noon kickoff time. It will be interesting to see how this impacts the arrival time of fans from both schools.
Throughout the season, the Cavalier coaching staff and players have mentioned the tremendous impact the home crowd can have on their play. They have dubbed the crowd the “fourth side.” The fourth side disrupts the flow of opposing offenses and energizes the Hoos on offense, defense, and even special teams. In one of the most significant games at Scott Stadium in recent memory, there is no reason the fourth side should not be out in full force Friday afternoon. After the overall turn around this team has led the program to in just three seasons, they deserve to be greeted with a raucous environment.
Three Opponents to Watch
1. Hendon Hooker, Quarterback, #2
The 6’4”, 228-pound redshirt sophomore was on the verge of not being a member of this Hokie team. In late January, Hooker announced that he would be entering his name into the transfer portal. Ultimately, he had a change of heart and decided to return to Blacksburg for another year.
Hooker came into this season as a backup and did not receive significant playing time until he led Virginia Tech to an upset at Miami that completely turned around their season. He is 6-0 as the starter while performing as consistently as any quarterback in the ACC.
Hooker has thrown for over 1,000 yards with ten touchdowns and zero interceptions in 2019. A threat on the ground as well, he has rushed for over 250 yards and four touchdowns. The Hoos will need to try to pressure him often and force a still inexperienced player to step outside his comfort zone and force the action in a rivalry game on the road.
2. Tre Turner, Wide Receiver, #11
The 6’2”, 190-pound sophomore has not necessarily had the second season Hokie fans were hoping for, although he leads the team in receptions and receiving yards with 26 catches for 408 yards and three touchdowns. As a true freshman last year, he showed flashes of brilliance at times.
Turner has big play ability with his speed and catching prowess that make him a matchup nightmare at times. If safety Chris Moore returns from suspension a violation of team rules, converted cornerback De’Vante Cross could once again be asked to step up and slow down a talented receiver. If Moore is out, redshirt sophomore Heskin Smith Jr., who earned the first start of his career last week, may start opposite Nick Grant once again.
Whoever the defender may be, keeping Turner in front and limiting homerun plays will be critical for the Cavalier defense.
3. Rayshard Ashby, Linebacker, #23
The 5’10”, 237-pound junior has been a tackling machine for Bud Foster’s defense this season. Nobody is within 30 tackles of his 98 total on the season. Ashby does an excellent job of tackling at all levels. He can get to the quarterback as he has 4.5 sacks and also can meet running backs at or around the line of scrimmage. Additionally, Ashby can punch the ball out when he does get to the ball carrier as he has forced two fumbles this year.
The Virginia offensive line has improved quite a bit since the start of the season, but Ashby and the rest of this Hokie defense will be putting them to the test all afternoon. If they can give Perkins some time to work with and open up holes in the ground game, they will neutralize Ashby and could have a big day of offense.
Three Key Cavalier Statistics
1. Zero Turnovers
The Cavaliers come into this matchup not having turned the ball over in their previous three games. It is not a coincidence that the Hoos were victorious in all three of these contests. Multiple turnovers have typically equated to losses for the Hoos. In their three losses this year, they have averaged 2.7 turnovers per game. On the other hand, in their wins, they only average one turnover per game.
The impact a single turnover can have on a game against the Hokies does not need to be brought up. To beat the Hokies, the Hoos have to take care of the ball.
2. 227 Rushing Yards
In last week’s victory over Liberty, the Cavalier offense amassed 227 rushing yards. They established the running game early against the Flames and did not go away from it in the second half. Looking at season trends for the offense, the Hoos averaged only 52 rushing yards per game in their three losses. Meanwhile, UVA is averaging over 150 yards per game in their wins.
Virginia needs get the run game going early to provide Perkins more time to work with. This time leads to him being able to choose between picking apart defenses with either his arm or his feet. Establishing the running game will not be an easy task this week, though. The Hokies boast a stingy run defense that allows only 118 rushing yards per game. This average places them inside the top 25 of all teams in the FBS.
3. 37 Sacks
All season long, an area of strength for the Virginia defense has been their ability to get to the opposing quarterback almost at will. They have totaled 37 sacks on the year, which is tied for eighth most in the FBS. A main reason for this success has been the play of the athletic linebackers, who seem to have the perfect combination of speed, strength, and length. Led by senior captain Jordan Mack with 7.5, the linebackers have combined for 22 of these 37 sacks.
Going against a quarterback without much experience, constant pressure could fluster Hooker and force him into making poor decisions that lead to turnovers or stalled drives. The Virginia Tech offensive line has been effective in keeping opposing defenses off their quarterback this year, however, allowing just 22 sacks this season.
The last time Virginia defeated the Hokies was back in 2003 at Scott Stadium. Matt Schaub and Heath Miller led the Hoos to a 35-21 victory. I was five-years old and in attendance. Go Hoos! Beat Tech!