Wahoowa! For the first time in 15 years, the University of Virginia football program and its fans get to celebrate a victory over Virginia Tech. To top off Friday’s thrilling victory over their in-state rivals, the Cavaliers can also celebrate an Atlantic Coast Conference Coastal Division title for the first time ever.
As expected, the 2019 version of Virginia versus Virginia Tech was an intense battle from start to finish. UVA would not be denied a victory over the arch-rival Hokies on this Black Friday afternoon, however, overcoming three second-half deficits before scoring nine points in the final minute and 23 seconds to capture the 2019 Commonwealth Cup. Fans young and old poured onto David A. Harrison III Field to celebrate a hard-earned – and long-awaited – victory.
“The stage was not too big for them,” Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall said of his players. “The moment was not too big for them. What was at stake was not too big for them. They believed that they were capable and prepared to perform in this setting and they did. That started from our quarterback position and I think that started from a year ago in this game.”
One year ago, Cavalier star quarterback Bryce Perkins learned in gut-wrenching fashion that the Virginia Tech game is never over until it’s over. UVA led 31-24 in the final minutes of the fourth quarter in last year’s contest in Blacksburg only to see the Hokies tie the game with a late touchdown and win in overtime. Perkins’ lost fumble in overtime sealed the victory for Tech.
This year’s ending is certainly a sweet one for the Cavalier team captain.
“I mean it meant the world,” Perkins said of beating Tech. “You know last year I was the last play that supposedly ended up costing us the game and I had to sit with that all year. It hurt, so you know, this year I really wanted to go out there and be aggressive. I wanted to just give everything I have to this team and not let them down again. Just do my part and trust everybody else to do their part to come together as a team to pull this victory off.”
Perkins’ performance on Friday afternoon – he finished with 475 yards and three touchdowns – was impressive on its own. Little did we know, though, that Perkins had been battling tonsillitis since last Saturday. He was hospitalized following the win over the Flames and would subsequently miss Monday’s practice while still dealing with the illness. Perkins returned to practice Tuesday feeling less than 100%, but he persevered.
As evidenced by his explosive two early touchdown runs against Virginia Tech, the UVA star was able to recover in time for today’s Commonwealth showdown. While the Cavalier passing game struggled much of the game, Perkins started fast on the ground, beginning with a 39-yard touchdown run on the opening drive of the game.
Perkins’ 70 yards on the opening drive was more than a peaking Virginia Tech defense had surrendered in total in either of its previous two games against Georgia Tech and Pittsburgh. UVA’s dual-threat signal caller would strike again with a 67-yard touchdown run to give the Hoos a 13-3 lead, which is where the game stood after one quarter of play. UVA led 13-6 at halftime as both defenses were stingy in the second quarter.
Confidently and swiftly, Virginia Tech erased Virginia’s halftime lead with a 75-yard touchdown scoring drive on the opening drive of the second half. Quarterback Hendon Hooker’s 34-yard touchdown run tied the game at 13 points apiece and signaled that the Tech offense was sharp following a first half in which the Cavalier defense forced three punts and created two turnovers.
Tech took its first lead with 4:42 remaining in the third quarter, on running back Deshawn McClease’s 1-yard touchdown run that capped off an 8-play, 71-yard drive. At that point Perkins and the UVA offense were struggling, having punted on six straight possessions while achieving only one first down in that span. It appeared Tech had seized control and could potentially cruise to victory. But Perkins, who had completed 9-of-19 passes for a meager 71 yards and an interception through almost three quarters, instead picked a great time to find his passing rhythm.
Offensive coordinator Robert Anae made the adjustment on UVA’s ensuing drive to increase the tempo. The move that paid immediate dividends as Perkins found senior receiver Joe Reed for a 42-yard pass play to the Tech 35 on the second play of the drive. Five plays later, on 3rd and 10 at the Tech 25, Perkins delivered a strike to sophomore Billy Kemp IV, who secured the catch and made a quick move right. Tech defensive back Chamarri Conner dove left, and his wrong guess allowed Kemp to turn a sure-fire first down into an easy 25-yard touchdown catch that tied the game at 20.
A now dominating Tech offense regained the lead less than two minutes later when Hooker connected with Tre Turner on a 61-yard touchdown pass. UVA again answered, though, moving 67 yards in two plays to the Tech 8. Two plays later sophomore Wayne Taulapapa ran into the end zone from two yards out to tie the game at 27-27 with 13:30 remaining in the fourth quarter.
“Virginia Tech has a very strong and capable defensive coordinator and we had some good answers early and they adapted and we struggled to match for a while,” Mendenhall said of his offense’s performance. “Then we seemed to gain our footing and our understanding and our execution versus what they were doing and that allowed us to break free again. It was a challenging game from a schematic standpoint for both sides.”
After allowing 224 yards and three scores in the third quarter, the Virginia defense stepped up big when it counted most. The first positive step was holding a red-hot Tech offense to a 47-yard field goal attempt after the Hokies had reached the Cavalier 27. Brian Johnson’s field goal was good and put the visitors ahead 30-27; however, the Virginia defense was able to build on this little bit of momentum.
In previous close matchups, including last year’s, Virginia Tech has been the team making the game-winning plays at the end. It was finally Virginia’s turn this year.
Trailing 30-27 with 10:58 remaining in the game, Perkins hit a wide open Hasise Dubois over the middle for 67 yards. This led to a Delaney 25-yard field goal that tied the game at 30. Virginia’s defense rose to the occasion with a turnover on Tech’s next drive, when outside linebacker Noah Taylor snatched Hooker’s pass attempt on 3rd and 20 for an interception at the UVA 35. Suddenly the homestanding Hoos had possession in a tie game with 4:47 remaining.
“I was a fly defender and they ran a low flat and a sail route overtop,” Taylor said, recalling the big-time interception. “I saw the quarterback look me off and try to throw to the flat and I knew he was about to go over top.”
Perkins and company would not waste the opportunity. It took two plays – completions to Joe Reed and Dubois – for Virginia to cross midfield. Facing a 3rd and 15 at the Tech 40, Perkins completed a 9-yard pass to sophomore receiver Tavares Kelly. The completion was short of a first down; however, it put the Hoos into field goal range for the strong-legged Delaney.Unshaken from a missed extra point on Virginia’s first touchdown, Delaney’s kick split the uprights to give UVA a 33-30 lead with 1:23 left in the game.
Virginia’s defense then enjoyed its best series of the day, sacking Hooker three straight times. Linebacker Zane Zandier and defensive lineman Aaron Faumui combined for the first one. Linebacker Matt Gahm notched the second one. Defensive lineman Mandy Alonso, who recovered a fumble in the first half, came through with the third sack. Alonso’s hit jarred the ball free from Hooker, who had dropped back into the end zone. Senior defensive lineman Eli Hanback recovered for a touchdown as the Scott Stadium crowd erupted with joy.
Perkins admits he waited to celebrate until the clock struck zero. Given how this series has gone, probably most Virginia fans did the same. Sure enough, though, when the clock struck zero Virginia fans finally had reason to celebrate a gridiron win over the Hokies. Hanback noted how happy his father and uncle, both huge UVA fans, were this year compared to how devasted they were last year.
“Like I told a lot of people before, this means the world to me,” said Hanback, a player Mendenhall credits with being a “pioneer” of UVA’s resurgence the past four years. “Last time we beat Virginia Tech I was seven years old and I’m twenty-three now. So, to be on the team who beat the streak is the best feeling in the world.”
Mendenhall, who saw the Cavalier program go 2-10 in his first season, was asked by the team to break the rock. An emotional head coach – he called the honor the “ultimate compliment” – did just that, celebrating the victory but also the progress this program has made in a short time.
“It’s an essential step,” Mendenhall said of beating Tech. “You can’t build a consistent conference or national contender unless you own your state. You have to win your division before you can win the conference championship. Those have to happen to have a quality football program.”
For the eighth time in school history, Virginia football finishes the regular season with nine wins. The Cavaliers become the seventh different team to win the Coastal division in seven years and have earned the right to play Clemson for the 2019 ACC Championship next Saturday in Charlotte (N.C.).
In his final game in Scott Stadium, Perkins finished with 311 yards passing, 164 yards rushing, three touchdowns, and an interception that led to Tech’s first points of the game. Fellow seniors Reed (five catches, 66 yards) and Dubois (four catches, 139 yards) enjoyed nice games as well as the Hoos racked up 492 yards of offense and 33 points against a defense that was surrendering an average of just over eight points a game in the month of November.
UVA had one turnover while Virginia Tech, which racked up 483 yards of offense, had four turnovers resulting in nine Cavalier points. Taylor had both interceptions and added a sack and a pass breakup. The Hoos finished with six sacks in total with Faumui leading the way with 1.5 sacks. Six different Wahoos contributed sacks, which is fitting given that so many players needed to make plays to take down the Hokies. It was a total team effort from a Cavalier group filled with steely resolve.
“[The second half comebacks] just kept showing how resilient this team is,” Mendenhall said. “We’ve had to change the nature of how we play as the season has gone on with how our roster has been affected here or there. Different position groups and different players at different times just seem to keep emerging at the right time to help us win. I liked that in coming back and in falling behind, the number of plays that had to be made from different players – it had to happen that way.”
Today’s outcome was well-deserved for the Hoos, who can now call themselves Commonwealth Cup and Coastal Division champs.