Keys & Picks 2019: Virginia Tech at Virginia

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Jordan Mack and the Virginia front seven will have to keep Virginia Tech’s rushing attack at bay while also pressuring quarterback Hendon Hooker. ~ Photo by Kris Wright

The Atlantic Coast Conference Coastal Division title is at stake in Scott Stadium on Friday, when Virginia football hosts No. 23 Virginia Tech. The winner faces Clemson in the 2019 ACC Championship game in Charlotte on Saturday, December 7.

“That’s exciting and fun for [the players], knowing every single goal they had written or chosen prior to the season is still in play,” said Virginia fourth-year head coach Bronco Mendenhall, who has guided the resurgent Cavalier program to consecutive eight-win seasons for the first time since 2002-2004. “That’s a remarkable thing for people or for players to have that opportunity to go after that and try to rise to that occasion.”

Rising to the occasion is something Virginia has not been able to do against its in-state rival since 2003, when quarterback Matt Schaub, tight end Heath Miller and wide receiver Marques Hagans – Hagans is now in his seventh season as UVA’s wide receivers coach – led the Hoos to a 35-21 victory over Tech in Scott Stadium.

“Acknowledge it,” Mendenhall said of UVA’s 15-game losing streak to Virginia Tech. “Just brutal fact-wise, then say it’s 19 versus 19, meaning that Virginia Tech’s ’19 team is playing the University of Virginia’s 19 team. Anything beyond that is interference and not relevant to me. It’s this year, this team, this week, after clearly acknowledging what the record has been.”

UVA’s 2019 team started fast, bursting out with four straight wins. The Cavaliers then lost three of four before rebounding with three straight victories in November. The difference for UVA in the past three games has been a highly efficient offense led by quarterback Bryce Perkins. Virginia has posted 38, 33 and 55 points in victories over UNC, Georgia Tech, and Liberty in the month of November, which Mendenhall framed as the “playoff race” for the Coastal Division.

Perkins and company are a perfect 19-of-19 in red zone scoring opportunities – 14 of those scores have been touchdowns – in the month of November. Additionally, they are taking care of the ball. Although the Hoos have fumbled several times, they have not turned the ball over once this month. Virginia has put together drives, capitalized in the red zone, and taken care of the football. This production was much-needed with the defense scrambling to find starting defensive backs due to a rash of injuries.

Virginia Tech started its season 2-2 before rebounding with six wins in its last seven games. All six of those victories have come with redshirt sophomore Hendon Hooker at quarterback. The dual-threat signal caller has passed for 1,134 yards and 10 touchdowns with zero interceptions while rushing for 262 yards and four touchdowns. Running back Deshawn McClease spearheads the run-game with 631 yards and five scores, though the Hokies have been successful with receivers Tre Turner (10.2 YPC) and Tayvion Robinson (12.7 YPC) popping big plays on the ground.

The Hokies feature talented receivers in Turner and Robinson and Damon Hazelton, as well as a pair of quality tight ends in Dalton Keene and James Mitchell. A banged-up UVA secondary will have their hands full on Friday.

While Tech’s offense has made game-winning plays, the defense led by retiring defensive coordinator Bud Foster has shined in the past four games. Tech returned fumbles for touchdowns in a loss at Notre Dame and in last week’s win over Pittsburgh. Over the past four games – Notre Dame, Wake Forest, Georgia Tech and Pittsburgh – the Hokies have surrendered an average of 9.5 points per game, including shutouts the past two weeks against the Yellow Jackets and Panthers. Georgia Tech and Pitt each had only eight first downs against the Hokies.

“I think the style of play of their entire team, meaning that the intent to run the football well, the intent to manage the clock, manage the game, have basically the offense, defense and special teams kind of work together,” Mendenhall noted about Virginia Tech, discussing the Hokies’ ascension the latter half of the year. “I think Virginia Tech’s brand has become stronger this year as they played, and their identity has become clearer of how their offense, defense and special teams fit together. I think their defense is gaining momentum, doing a nice job over the last three weeks especially. Again, clarity on who they are, how they’re going to play, and the results are showing that.”

Virginia has a red-hot offense and is a perfect 6-0 in Scott Stadium this season. Virginia Tech has won 15 straight contests in the series and is playing well in all three phases, the past three weeks especially. With the Coastal division is on the line, Friday should be fun.

Bryce Perkins almost led Virginia to victory in Blacksburg last season. He’ll have another chance to beat Tech on Friday, this time with the ACC Coastal title on the line. ~ Photo by Kris Wright

The Keys

1. A Fast Start.

Virginia Tech led Georgia Tech 31-0 at halftime and Pittsburgh 21-0 at halftime. The Hokies are no doubt soaring with confidence, and a fast start on Friday could be tough for UVA to overcome. It’s important for the Cavaliers to get off to a fast start Friday to knock the visiting Hokies on their heels.

2. Maintain the winning formula.

Virginia’s offense has shined in November in part due to being turnover free and outstanding red zone execution. The Cavaliers had three turnovers, including Perkins’ overtime fumble that sealed the game, and a blocked punt that was recovered for a touchdown in last year’s outing. The Hoos will need a clean game against a defense that’s playing with a lot of confidence and has 12 interceptions on the year.

When UVA reaches the red zone, the Cavaliers will have to score touchdowns. Tech’s defense is stingy in that area of the field, surrendering scores 70.3% of the time. As mentioned earlier Virginia’s offense has been terrific, scoring 14 touchdowns in 19 red zone trips the past three games. The Hoos have five field goals the other five red zone opportunities, but touchdowns will be likely be key to taking down Tech with the Cavalier defense not being as good as it was early in the year.

3. Run The Football Consistently.

Running backs PK Kier, Lamont Atkins and Mike Hollins rushed for 170 yards and three touchdowns last week against Liberty. Perkins added 30 more yards as the Hoos amassed 227 yards and four scores on the ground. Liberty’s defense is not Virginia Tech’s. After allowing 234 yards on the ground in a 45-10 loss at home to Duke, the Hokies defense has been phenomenal, allowing an average of 77.6 yards rushing per game and 3.1 yards per carry.

Look for Tech to key on Perkins in the run game. Virginia could really use a quality outing from the running backs (and of course the offensive line) to open up things for Perkins as a runner but also for the pass game.

Conversely, Virginia’s front has to contain the Tech rushing attack and make the Hokies one-dimensional. Make Hendon Hooker win in the traditional pass game. Letting Tech establish the run will put too much pressure on a depleted secondary.

The Picks

Sabre Editor Kris Wright

Well, the big week is finally here. Virginia and Virginia Tech. UVA has openly stated that one of the program’s main goals is to “Beat Tech” and end the 15-game losing streak in this rivalry game. For some fans, nothing else matters. The Hoos need the suffering to end.

And as fate would have it, the Coastal Division title is on the line too.

So, that all adds up to a super-charged rivalry game in Charlottesville. The conventional wisdom says throw the records out the window – even though both teams come in at 8-3 – and to ignore the stats. But, it’s hard to do that. Tech seems to be trending up with three straight wins and their lone loss in the last seven games came on the road without their starting quarterback. The Hokies’ defense seems to have settled in for Bud Foster’s last ride with back-to-back shutouts and a grand total of 38 points allowed in the last four games.

Virginia, meanwhile, has a little bit of a smoke and mirrors feel, at least defensively, despite winning four of their last five games. The defense is reeling from injuries with key secondary stalwarts Bryce Hall and Brenton Nelson gone for the year. That’s led to a high points yield with 27 or more points allowed in the last four games. The offense has stepped up to keep the wins going with 38, 33, and 55 points in the last three games.

What does all that mean? Who knows? This game has a pick ‘em, shootout kind of feel. The Hokies are a slight 2.5-point favorite as of late. That could make for great theater. Great theater usually sets the stage for great players. To me, that means Bryce Perkins. He’s put on some dazzling performances in his short two-year run in Charlottesville and I think the Hoos may need one more for this team to reach its goals of beating Tech and winning the division. So I’m making my pick based exclusively on how last year’s game ended – with a Perkins’ fumble in overtime – and how I think he’ll rise to the moment. VIRGINIA 38, VIRGINIA TECH 34. Season to date: 8-3.

Sabre Associate Editor Chris Horne

Rising to the occasion. In the recent close games between these two teams, Virginia Tech always seems to make more clutch plays while Virginia falls short. Last season’s matchup was a prime example. Tech is obviously playing very well and Virginia, while playing well offensively, has serious question marks in the secondary that the Hokies are sure to test.

Virginia’s injuries in the defensive backfield may prove too much to overcome against a Tech team playing so well. However, I feel last year’s experiences have given this year’s Cavalier team an extra level of toughness and resolve. It’ll be a battle from beginning to end, but my gut says Virginia somehow rises to the occasion and pulls out the victory. VIRGINIA 30, VIRGINIA TECH 27. Season to date: 7-4.

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