Over the past 13 years, the world has changed in many ways but there’s been one thing that has been constant throughout, Virginia Tech has been better than Virginia at football.
Tonight, the Hokies and Hoos face off in the Battle for the Commonwealth Cup with VT looking to keep the cup in Blacksburg for the 14th-straight year. Meanwhile, UVA has their best team since 2011 and may have their best chance at taking down the Hokies in an even longer time.
Motivation won’t be hard to find as this is a game that every Hokie and Wahoo has circled on their calendar from the day after the previous year’s game. For Virginia Tech, the 13-straight winning streak has created a target on their backs that they are proud to wear. Meanwhile, Virginia is becoming more desperate every year to hit the bullseye on that target and end their losing streak that they’ve come so close to ending plenty of times.
For the first time since 2011, both Virginia Tech and Virginia enter this game with winning records. The last time that happened in 2011, Virginia Tech beat Virginia 38-0 to clinch a spot in the ACC Championship.
While a spot in the ACC Championship isn’t on the line this year, bragging rights and the Commonwealth Cup still are, and that’s plenty to get fired up about. With that said, here are our keys to the game and pick.
Keys to the Game
1. Establish The Running Game
Josh Jackson and Virginia Tech’s passing game has struggled in the month of November, causing the offense to slow down as well. In November, Virginia Tech’s offense has not put up more than 20 points in a single game and that is largely due to the passing game’s struggles. Part of that appears to be due to a lack of confidence from Josh Jackson in part due to some offensive line struggles.
One way to help that would be to get the running game going and take some pressure off Jackson.
Last week, Virginia Tech was able to do that led by a two-man RB tandem of Deshawn McClease and Jalen Holston. Both averaged over four yards per carry as McClease was a big spark offensively in the second half while Holston continued to run with more comfort and confidence in the offense, leading to a single-game best in rushing yards (52).
This week, it will be interesting to see how the Hokies split up their carries especially if Travon McMillian and Steven Peoples are both healthy. Don’t be surprised to see McClease and Holston get some of the early carries after their quality games last week to see if they can build off that and give the Hokies some momentum on the ground.
If Virginia Tech can establish a solid running game, it will force UVA into bringing more players in the box and create more one-on-one matchups that guys like Cam Phillips, Sean Savoy, and Eric Kumah can take advantage of in various ways. If not, Josh Jackson will face a tough challenge against a UVA team loaded with playmakers on all levels of their defense.
2. Don’t Give Up The Big Play
Over the past couple weeks, Virginia Tech’s defense has done well outside of a few moments when they’ve given up some costly big plays. Against Georgia Tech, the Hokies’ defense gave up three plays of 60+ yards that either were touchdowns or set up Yellow Jacket touchdowns. Against Pitt, the Hokies gave up a 74-yard reception that would have been a touchdown if it wasn’t for an incredible hustle tackle from Reggie Floyd.
This week, Virginia Tech faces a Virginia offense built around their passing game with Kurt Benkert. The bad news for the Hokies is they have a secondary that is already without Terrell Edmunds and Divine Deablo, and may also be without Mook Reynolds and Adonis Alexander. The Hokies still have lots of talent in their secondary that can rise up to the challenge led by star cornerback Greg Stroman, but they can expect that Benkert and UVA will test them.
Virginia has some guys who have big play potential in their passing game including WR Andre Levrone who is averaging over 20 yards per reception. Part of the key will be for the safeties to keep everything in front of them whoever is back there whether it’s Reggie Floyd and Mook Reynolds or Floyd and Khalil Ladler. This failure to keep everything in front of them proved costly multiple times against Georgia Tech and was one of the main reasons why the Yellow Jackets upset the Hokies.
Virginia Tech has one of the best defenses in America but lately, they’ve had an issue with giving up the big play. If they are to avoid being upset by UVA, they can’t afford to give up big plays like they did against Georgia Tech.
For the first time since 2011, Virginia Tech and Virginia face off with both teams have winning records. When they did in 2011, the Hokies blew out Virginia 38-0 in Scott Stadium to go to the ACC Championship. Unlike that game, this year’s matchup should be a much closer game.
Injuries have weakened Virginia Tech along with a struggling passing game that makes this one of the best opportunities UVA has had to end the streak since it started. Josh Jackson has appeared to deal with some confidence issues, likely due in part to an offensive line that has struggled lately and a question mark at best at left tackle with Yosuah Nijman hurt.
The good news for the Hokies is that they started to get their running game going last week with Deshawn McClease and Jalen Holston, and face a UVA team that is allowing around 4.5 yards per carry. It will be critical for the Hokies to get their running game going, and the good news is that their backfield may be close to full strength with Steven Peoples probable this week and Travon McMillian not listed.
If the Hokies can get their rushing game going and force UVA into more one-on-one matchups, it will give guys like Josh Jackson the space to make plays and gain separation quickly. The Hokies’ quick passing game will also be important against a UVA defense that has some talented pass rushers including senior linebacker Micah Kiser who has 5 sacks, and junior OLB Chris Peace who leads the Wahoos with 7.5 sacks.
If Jackson can get the ball out quickly and accurately, Virginia’s defense will have some troubles dealing with the Hokie offense.
Virginia Tech’s defense has taken some injuries lately with Terrell Edmunds and Vinny Mihota out for the season, and Adonis Alexander and Mook Reynolds both making the injury report this week. However, Virginia Tech’s defense has kept on going without some of these prominent faces already led by a strong rush defense that seems poised for a big week on the ground against a UVA rushing game that has struggled.
However, the Hokies’ pass defense has given up some big plays lately and faces the best quarterback they’ve played since at least Miami in Kurt Benkert. Benkert has been inconsistent at times, but has also had some fine moments in big games including an impressive first half against Miami that helped get UVA a 28-14 lead over the Canes.
Benkert also has some solid weapons to work with, and VT will need their healthy DBs like Greg Stroman, Brandon Facyson, and Reggie Floyd to step up and play well. The good news is that those guys have been playing well lately especially Stroman who has looked like an All-American this season.
Unlike the game in 2011, this will be a four quarter affair that will come down right to the end. Special teams will make a difference and that’s where the Hokies have an advantage especially with Stroman returning punts against a poor UVA punt coverage unit that gives up over 13 yards per punt return.
This will be a nail-bitter as Benkert will be able to get his passing game going, but the Hokies’ running game will also have one of its best games of the year. This game could go either way, but the Hokies have been here before and have the more talented team. UVA will come close once again, but led by a strong defense and enough offense, the Hokies will get the job done and keep the Commonwealth Cup in Blacksburg for the 14th-straight year.