Keys & Picks – Virginia Football Vs. Virginia Tech

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Virginia and Virginia Tech lock horns on Friday.
Micah Kiser and the Hoos hope to end the year with a rivalry win. ~ Kris Wright

Over the past several seasons, I’ve seen different fans and writers try to put the Virginia football team’s losing streak against Virginia Tech into time perspective. You know, things like the last time UVA won in 2003, the iPhone didn’t exist.

A different sort of perspective stat dawned on me during Thanksgiving dinner with family Thursday evening. I’ve never managed this website after a Virginia win against Virginia Tech. Ouch.

Some of those years have been close, most notably in 2008, 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015. Last season’s game? Not so much. UVA rotated three quarterbacks and got whipped 52-10. At the end of a long 2-10 season, that was just a final frustrating straw that left people questioning Bronco Mendenhall all the way into 2017.

This season, however, the Cavaliers have shifted the momentum for the program. They’re bowl eligible at 6-5 and this team has put together good performances in most of its games this season, even the losses. See last week’s showing at No. 2 Miami for example.

It’s tempting to say then that this regular season finale against Virginia Tech could be the icing on the cake, the cherry on top of a sundae, or just a really big bonus win for the year. That approach would be misleading. A win here would be so much more than that.

Mendenhall mentioned a greater understanding of the rivalry this week.

“I have a better understanding for almost everything about our program than I did a year ago and I can’t say I have a perfect understanding of this game and the rivalry, but it’s very important to me and our team and I understand the implications of that,” Mendenhall said. “Now that I framed that and know how important it is, [our focus] really is everything we can possibly do to help our team prepare well and have their best chance to perform the way they can.”

Can the Wahoos end the season with a huge streak-busting victory? I’d love to see the message boards after a Virginia Tech rivalry win.

Kris’ Keys To Winning

1. Maximize the trio plus one’s touches. Receivers Olamide Zaccheaus, Doni Dowling, and Andre Levrone are the first trio of receivers to surpass 600 or more receiving yards in the same season at Virginia. All have come through with big games and big catches during the season. Joe Reed is a threat running, receiving, or returning the football. UVA likely will need to be successful passing the football to beat Virginia Tech, which ranks 24th nationally in allowing 128.36 rushing yards per game. Plus, defensive coordinator Bud Foster tries to shut down the run first to be able to mix in pressure packages while leaving corners in one-on-one situations. That all circles back to QB Kurt Benkert and the passing game needing to make plays in this game. Keep the trio of receivers plus Reed on the field together as much as possible and really test the Hokies.

2. Keep a can on Cam. Virginia’s defense is vulnerable at times to big plays that turn into explosive touchdowns. Of Virginia Tech’s big plays covering 20 yards or more this season on offense, most have come in the passing game (46 of 53/86.8%). And of those 46 big passing plays, most have come from receiver Cam Phillips (16 of 46/34.8%). It’s imperative for the Hoos to prevent any big tosses to Phillips in this game, whether that’s by coverage design or by corners Bryce Hall or Juan Thornhill winning a one-on-one battle. Phillips is the program’s all-time leading in receiver yards (needs 19 to crack 3,000!) and receptions. He had a 39-yard touchdown catch last season against UVA.

3. Don’t let Beamer Ball decide it. While Frank Beamer has retired, the Hokies have not slipped backward on special teams. They are tied for No. 2 nationally in blocked kicks with five and they smother return attempts (lowest combined kickoff/punt return yardage allowed in the Power 5 conferences). Kicker Joey Slye is Tech’s all-time leading scorer. Punt returner Greg Stroman ranks second in program history in returns, return yards, and return touchdowns. He’s taken one to the house four times and needs one more to tie DeAngelo Hall atop the charts. UVA’s special teams has been an inconsistent group, has allowed two punt return touchdowns this season, and had two miscues last week that set up short fields for Miami touchdowns. This could be a critical area Friday night.

The Picks

Sabre Editor Kris Wright: I said on the Best Seat in the House radio show something I’ve said in this paragraph many times: I don’t pick the Hoos to beat the Hokies until this streak ends. Something seems to go Tech’s way and wrecks UVA’s chances. Or the Cavaliers simply aren’t up to the challenge at all. Yet, something is brewing for Friday night’s prime time kickoff at Scott Stadium. This season has been a reset button season in so many ways – rebound from last year’s 2-10 debut with Mendenhall, end the ridiculous turnover streak, return to bowl eligibility, and stop the slide against the dreaded Tar Heels. There’s really only one reset box left to check and this team knows it. I’m breaking my own rule and the Hoos are breaking the streak. VIRGINIA 38, VIRGINIA TECH 20. Season to date: 7-4.

Sabre Associated Editor Chris Horne: I want to pick Virginia. No better storybook ending for Quin Blanding and Micah Kiser than to achieve a bowl game and a Virginia Tech win after all they have given to this Cavalier program. But I just can’t bring myself to pick the Hoos here. Past games shouldn’t matter, but after seeing UVA blow golden opportunities in 2014 and 2015, I think there is something of a mental block when it comes to beating the Hokies. Virginia can beat Virginia Tech. I think it will be close. But, when it comes down to it, I don’t think Virginia has the consistency from start to finish to get it done. VIRGINIA TECH 24, VIRGINIA 21. Season to date: 5-6.

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