The University of Virginia football program may not be competing for the ACC Coastal Division title following last week’s loss to Pittsburgh, but there is plenty on the line when the Hoos host the arch-rival Virginia Tech Hokies Saturday afternoon at Scott Stadium.
For starters, UVA can reclaim the Commonwealth Cup, which Virginia Tech captured after defeating the Cavaliers in Blacksburg last season, 33-15. “Beat Tech,” a mantra instilled by head coach Bronco Mendenhall, remains one of the top goals for a Virginia football program that has its sights set on becoming a consistent championship contender. UVA captured the Cup for the first time in 15 years in 2019, when quarterback Bryce Perkins and company downed the Hokies, 39-30, in Scott Stadium.
With a win on Saturday, the home team clinches a winning record. This would be the program’s third winning season since 2011, a nice boost heading into what will be UVA’s third bowl appearance in the Bronco Mendenhall era. Coach Mendenhall guided the Hoos to an 8-5 season in 2018 and a 9-5 campaign in 2019. Virginia finished 2020 at 5-5 and declined to be considered for a bowl game.
Back in his role as starting quarterback is Brennan Armstrong, who returned from a rib injury to pass for 487 yards and three touchdowns in a 10-point loss to Pitt last week. Armstrong has been phenomenal in his second full season as the Cavalier starting quarterback, setting new school single season records in passing yards and passing touchdowns along the way. UVA’s passing attack, which is tied for no. 2 in the nation in yards per game (390.2), faces a Virginia Tech defense that ranks no. 43 in the nation in pass efficiency defense but surrendered 357 yards and three touchdowns to Miami quarterback Tyler Van Dyke last week.
Tech seeks to defeat Virginia for the 21st time in the last 23 meetings. With a win, the Hokies (5-6) become bowl eligible. Like Virginia, Virginia Tech opted against a bowl game last season, ending its 27-year bowl streak.
The Hokies lean on their defense, which features some talented playmakers but only ranks tied for no. 98 in turnovers gained and 63rd in total defense (376.5 yards per game), and a physical rushing attack, which has shown improvement in the past five games (see below). Despite the departure of head coach Justin Fuente on November 16, the Tech players played hard in a losing effort at Miami. Tech’s players are always fired up to play UVA, so expect them to play hard once again for interim coach and former Tech player J.C. Price.
Three Hokies To Watch: Offense
Tre Turner, Wide Receiver, #9
Pittsburgh’s Jordan Addison shredded the Virginia defense to the tune of 14 catches for 202 yards and four touchdowns. North Carolina’s Josh Downs had eight receptions for 203 yards and two scores. Virginia Tech has not had the quality of play at quarterback that Pitt and UNC have had this season, but Turner is the type of speedy, big-play receiver that has consistently given Virginia fits. Two years ago in Scott Stadium, Turner hauled in seven receptions for 134 yards and a 61-yard touchdown catch in a losing effort. He has been dealing with an upper body injury that sidelined him for the second half of last week’s loss at Miami, but Turner is definitely a player UVA has to contain this week, particularly if Braxton Burmeister is Tech’s quarterback. Between Burmeister and Connor Blumrick, Burmeister, who has thrown for 1,819 yards and 13 touchdowns with four interceptions this season, has proven thus far to clearly be the better passer.
Tayvion Robinson, Wide Receiver/Punt Returner, #11
I believe Virginia Tech’s rushing attack will be key on Saturday, so why put two receivers in the “Three To Watch” category? Simply put, these are two of Tech’s most consistent playmakers on offense. And with Robinson, he brings the extra dimension of being a standout on special teams, which let down UVA big-time against Pittsburgh last week.
Robinson leads Virginia Tech in receptions (41) and has three receiving scores. A dynamic punt returner, the Virginia Beach (VA) native is averaging 13.7 yards per return and has a 60-yard score against Richmond to his credit. A big play threat any time he touches the ball, Robinson leads the Hokies in plays of 20+ yards with 16.
Also of note, Robinson and Turner will get some carries in the run-game too, as each has 12 carries on the season. Turner scored a rushing touchdown against the Hoos last season.
Raheem Blackshear, Running Back, #5
Junior running back Raheem Blackshear leads Virginia Tech in all-purpose yards with 967, including 550 yards rushing, 244 yards receiving, and 173 yards in kick returns. He leads all Tech running backs and receivers in touchdowns with six, including five rushing and one receiving, and is behind only Robinson in plays of 20+ yards with 15. A tough runner, Blackshear has churned out an average of 5.3 yards per carry.
Tech has another running back to watch out for in true freshman Malachi Thomas (#24), who, in a reserve role, has rushed for 432 yards and three touchdowns. Thomas is a patient runner capable of breaking big plays and turning in big games, as evidenced by his performances against Syracuse (151 yards, 3 TDs) and Georgia Tech (103 yards).
Three Hokies To Watch: Defense
Jermaine Waller, Cornerback, #2
Waller is 10th among FBS players and leads Tech with four interceptions, which includes a 26-yard interception return for a touchdown against Notre Dame. The 6’1”, 180-pound junior is confident, aggressive, and talented, and he has shown to be Tech’s best playmaking corner throughout the 2021 campaign. Waller leads Tech in pass breakups with five.
Chamarri Conner, Nickel Back, #1
Conner, who measures in at 6’0”, 205 pounds, is a physical defensive back who plays with an attitude. He leads the Hokies in solo tackles (49), is fourth overall in total tackles (76), and has 5.5 tackles for loss including two sacks, four pass breakups, two forced fumbles and one interception. Conner has a blocked kick as well.
Virginia Tech’s Defensive Ends
Amare Barno (#11) and TyJuan Garbutt (#45) have combined for seven sacks (each with 3.5) on the season, and UVA tackles Bobby Haskins and Ryan Swoboda have had difficulty at times protecting against athletic end types such as these. Haskins graded out under 40 in pass protection last week against Pittsburgh, for example. This Virginia Tech defense is middle-of-the-road in terms of total sacks (23), tied for 69 among FBS schools, but Barno and Garbutt could present challenges to UVA’s passing attack. Barno, who gave UVA trouble last season with two tackles for loss including one sack, is tall (6’6”, 245 pounds), rangy, athletic, and has 10 quarterback hurries and 5.5 tackles for loss.
Three Keys For Virginia
Stop The Run
Virginia Tech has rushed for over 200 yards in four of its past five games, averaging 236.6 yards per contest and 5.4 yards per carry in that span. This includes a 260-yard performance in a home loss to Syracuse, which currently ranks no. 27 in the nation against the run. UVA’s rush defense ranks no. 121 in the nation and the Hoos are allowing 5.68 yards per carry. Virginia will have to be much better against Virginia Tech, which has capable running backs and two quarterbacks – Burmeister and especially Blumrick (31 carries, 203 yards, 2 TDs) – capable of making plays in the run game.
Don’t Let Emotion Impact Play
This game is filled with emotion, and Virginia Tech typically isn’t shy in the trash talking department. The key for Virginia players is keeping their composure throughout, making sure the emotions of the Commonwealth Cup don’t impact execution. The Hoos executed two years ago, coming back from down seven twice in the second half to claim victory.
“It’s a challenge,” Mendenhall said of executing in a rivalry game. “Education is part of it, showing examples of what is acceptable, what’s not, what helps the team, what hurts the team. All those things are the same that happen every week other than when you start playing meaningful games that you’ve earned at the end of seasons like we just did and like we have coming up and like the bowl game will be, that usually means emotions and a chance for — man, even to care more if that’s possible, to be involved. It never helps to go outside of the rules or outside of the play.”
Whether it is the defense surrendering long touchdowns, the offense with bad turnovers in its own territory, or special teams (UVA surrendered a kickoff return for a TD vs. Pitt and a long punt return that set up a field goal), Virginia has been hampered by big plays in its five losses. Last year versus Virginia Tech, the Hoos allowed a 76-yard touchdown run and a 60-yard touchdown pass in the loss in Blacksburg. UVA needs to limit the big mistakes and make the plays in order to reclaim the Commonwealth Cup.
Sabre Editor Kris Wright
The annual clash with the Hokie has arrived. Everyone knows the deal, the streak, and all of that. The main question: Can the Hoos make it two straight at Scott Stadium? They won in 2019 in a thrilling game that clinched the Coastal Division title. This time around, however, the Cavaliers are coming into the game off the disappointment of a close loss to Pitt that would have given UVA a shot at another division title.
Like most games this season, the matchup with Tech figures to come down to one thing. The Virginia defense. If that side of the ball can win a few possessions – force a punt, get a turnover, or at least hold for a field goal in the red zone – then the Hoos’ high-powered offense likely can crank out enough points to get a victory. Against VT, the biggest concern is run defense because while the Hokies only rank 51st nationally in rushing offense, they have the pieces that could give UVA’s 121st ranked run defense problems. If the defense can’t stop the run, expect Tech to keep going to the well and eating up value game time to keep the ball away from the Wahoos. The run game is what powered Virginia Tech in 2016 (52-10 Hokies, 289 yards rushing), 2017 (10-0 Hokies, 202 rushing yards), 2018 (34-21 Hokies, 254 yards rushing), and 2020 (33-15 Hokies, 252 rushing yards). In 2019, UVA won 39-30 and allowed only 172 yards rushing. That one piece of the puzzle worries me about this year’s matchup. Run fits have been an issue all season long and break-out runs have cost the Cavaliers in several games. That’s possible against Virginia Tech and could make it yet another shootout for this team where anything can happen.
Ultimately, I think UVA has more to play for and needs this win to give a little boost to its players and fans. I’m sure Brennan Armstrong is still unhappy about his play in the rivalry game a year ago and will want to play better this time around. I think the Virginia offense continues to put up points as it has done all season long and that’s enough to get the win. It might require sweating it out for a long while, though. HOOS 41, HOKIES 27.
Sabre Associate Editor Chris Horne
Virginia Tech’s going to play hard and physical. Tech’s rushing attack is concerning given UVA’s struggles on defense. But the Hokies will have their hands full containing Armstrong and company, who are looking to rebound from last season’s 15-point performance in Blacksburg. I think Virginia will be focused and ready following last week’s close loss at Pitt. With Armstrong, Dontayvion Wicks, Keytaon Thompson, Billy Kemp IV, an experienced offensive line, and more, UVA’s offense should be too much for Tech in the end. VIRGINIA 45, VIRGINIA TECH 34.