For more than a month, the Virginia football team relied on a simple blueprint to win games. An explosive offense plus an opportunistic and run-stuffing defense led to four consecutive victories. The Hoos got none of that Saturday in their rivalry game with Virginia Tech and the Hokies reclaimed the Commonwealth Cup with a 33-15 win.
UVA’s futility in Blacksburg continued for another year with the loss. The Wahoos haven’t won a road game in the series since 1998 and haven’t won back-to-back games against Tech since that same year.
“I think it hurts, kind of, no matter what,” Cavalier coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “The things that are controllable, that we didn’t control, which again really comes down to the precision and the assignment soundness and the consistency. Those are the things that I always take personally and like to see at an elite level.”
Virginia was far from an elite level in the loss as it failed to produce the formula that led to four straight wins against UNC, Louisville, Abilene Christian, and Boston College. The offense struggled for most of the game and the defense didn’t come through with any critical plays to influence the outcome. Instead, UVA’s offense gave away two interceptions and scored no points after a VT fumble on a punt return in the first half, while the defense gave up two scoring plays of 60+ yards and allowed points on 7 of 10 Hokie possessions. That resulted in a sluggish, grind-it-out appearance game on the surface.
Offensively, the Hoos got off to a good start. On their first possession, the visitors put together 14 plays for a 75-yard drive that resulted in a 7-3 lead. They converted three third downs on that drive and finished things off with an 11-yard pass from Brennan Armstrong to Keytaon Thompson. Armstrong released the ball with a sort of sidearm motion to fit the pass through a window on the scoring play.
Unfortunately for UVA fans, that drive turned out to be fool’s gold. The rest of the night resulted in far less consistency and much less production. Virginia ended up 6 of 14 on third downs so taking out the 3-3 effort on that opening TD drive, the offense was just 3-11 the rest of the night. The Cavaliers finished with 322 yards, but gained just 247 on the next 11 drives after going 75 yards on the first possession. They missed a field goal after Tech fumbled at its own 24-yard line in the second quarter and mismanaged the final minute of the first half as well when letting the clock run in the final 30 seconds despite having three timeouts.
Armstrong’s night influenced a lot of the issues.
On the opening touchdown drive, he completed 5 of 8 passes (62.5%) for 56 yards and a touchdown while adding 3 carries for 14 rushing yards too. The rest of the way, he completed 20 of 38 passes (52.6%) for 203 yards while gaining 9 yards on 12 carries. He did have another touchdown pass when he connected with Tony Poljan for a 23-yard scoring play in the third quarter, but also threw 2 interceptions. That included a critical pick when Virginia was trying to rally from a 27-7 halftime deficit with the score down to 30-15. Armstrong had his team in VT territory when he misfired on a pass that was intercepted by Dorian Strong and then returned to the UVA 39. The Hokies added a field goal from that exchange and that became the final score.
Poljan had 5 catches for 66 yards and the touchdown, his sixth of the season. That tied him for No. 2 in a single season for TD catches by a tight end. Billy Kemp IV led the team with 9 catches for 73 yards. Armstrong was the leading rusher with 23 yards, while Shane Simpson added 22 on just 2 carries.
The showing was a reversal from back-to-back games with more than 400 yards of total offense for Armstrong.
“Virginia Tech played the run against us very well,” Mendenhall said. “Coverage variety and different looks made us more hesitant than normal and that affected our execution. Certainly a big game, lots of emotion, a unique setting and a challenging setting, and then just some variety of different looks, that are happening during the play and I think all those things compounded just to not make us as consistent.”
UVA’s defense couldn’t come up with a game-changing play either. After forcing key turnovers against UNC and BC, while scoring defensive touchdowns against Louisville and Abilene Christian, the Hoos had no such opportunistic plays in this game. The defense had 0 interceptions, 0 sacks, and 0 forced fumbles.
Coen King led the Virginia defense with a career-high 10 tackles, while Nick Grant and Matt Gahm added 8 stops each. Nick Jackson had 7 tackles too.
“We always preach about havoc,” Jackson said. “We always want to have havoc. I don’t think we caused enough havoc tonight. I think we played hard. We played our hearts out.”
Virginia Tech took advantage with a balanced attack. The hosts recorded 252 rushing yards and 212 passing yards. Running back Khalil Herbert led the ground game with 20 carries for 162 yards and a touchdown, which came on a 75-yard breakthrough run in the second quarter. Jalen Holston added 14 carries for 58 yards, while QB Braxton Burmeister had 7 carries for 36 yards.
Burmeister also had a solid day through the air. He completed 15 of 22 passes for all 212 passing yards, which included a 60-yard touchdown late in the first half when he found Tayvion Robinson near the sideline. Robinson avoided De’Vante Cross’ attempt to push him out of bounds and then sprinted to the end zone with just 31 seconds to go in the first half. Robinson led Tech with 5 catches for 98 yards. Tre Turner chipped in 3 catches for 25 yards plus as 6-yard touchdown carry.
The Hokies added the rest of their points courtesy of kicker Brian Johnson, who made all four of his attempts from 46, 47, 47, and 30 yards. The touchdown just before halftime coupled with the long touchdown run earlier in the quarter essentially decided the game, particularly when Virginia’s offense never found a way to get going.
“There wasn’t a lot of screaming and yelling or anything else [at halftime], it was just execution,” Mendenhall said. “We gave up two giant plays on defense, and we were inconsistent on offense. So it was just a matter of executing our way back into the game. When we closed it within 30 to 15, it looked like, yeah, that could be a really strong finish and a competitive ending. Then some turnovers got in the away from there.”
It all shook out as another road loss for the Hoos, which left them with a 5-5 record in the regular season. They failed to win any of their four road games this season at Clemson, Wake Forest, Miami, and VT. The last one extended a long stretch of frustration at Lane Stadium where Virginia hasn’t won since 1998.
After last season’s Coastal Division clincher snapped a 15-game losing streak in the rivalry, the Cavaliers couldn’t capture consecutive wins in the series either. That proved to be a disappointing outcome for the team.
“It’s immediate motivation to get it right the next time,” Mendenhall said. “It’s our goal and desire to win the state, every single year. Not every other year or less frequently than that. It doesn’t happen unless it’s intentional. It doesn’t happen if it’s just a regular game. So, yeah we’re motivated already to get back to work.”
“I think everyone’s obviously disappointed,” UVA senior Terrell Jana said. “We really wanted to win here in this stadium. … Obviously, we lost the game, so everyone’s pretty mad and upset. I think again it’s a good lesson, you know, sometimes you need a lesson like this to remind us, because we’ve been programmed to go up, up and up. So it’s a good reminder. Just a good humbling and hopefully we use it moving forward.”