It’s time as Virginia Tech is preparing for their Commonwealth Cup showdown against Virginia. Before tonight’s game, Jackson Pugh goes Inside The Enemy with the Virginia Cavaliers.
- It’s All about the Pass
One of the main reasons why Virginia is bowl-eligible for the first time since 2011: the excellent play of Senior QB Kirk Benkert (2,876 yards, 25 TD, 8 INT). Since transferring from ECU in 2015, Benkert has thrown for 5,398 yards, 46 touchdowns, and 19 interceptions in 23 career games at UVA. The last Cavalier quarterback to throw for as many touchdowns in a two-season span was someone special: current NFL QB Matt Schaub in 2002-03. Indeed, it’s safe to say that Benkert is the best signal-caller that UVA has had in a while.
With most quality passing teams, there is usually one elite receiver that defensive coordinators have to key on, such as Cam Phillips for Virginia Tech or Steve Ishmael for Syracuse. However, such is not the case for the UVA passing game; one of Benkert’s biggest strengths is his ability to distribute the ball to a multitude of receivers.
Virginia is one of the few college football teams to have three receivers with 600 yards or more, with Olamide Zacchaeus (794 yards, 5 TD), Doni Dowling (614 yards, 5 TD), and Andre Levrone (603 yards, 7 TD). While Zacchaeus is no wee little man, especially since he has also ran the ball 27 times for 182 yards, no receiver on Virginia can be taken lightly by the Hokie secondary.
With injuries to Terell Edmunds, Divine Deablo, and Adonis Alexander, this could be a tough week for the Hokie secondary. Also, RB Jordan Ellis is someone to be concerned with, as he caught 6 passes for 57 yards last week against Miami. If Virginia Tech covers the running back position like they did against Clemson, it could spell trouble for the Lunch Pail Defense on Black Friday.
- And Not About the Run
Even with the brilliant play of Benkert, Virginia is still only 85th in scoring offense and 93rd in total offense. The reason for those numbers is because the running game has been non-existent; the Cavaliers only average 107.4 yards per game on the ground, good for 119th in the country. To add another verse to those blues, the poor rushing numbers are not simply a result of Virginia running infrequently; UVA averages a woeful 3.36 yards per rush. With the Hokie defense allowing only 128.4 rush yards per game, the odds do not look so favorable for the Cavalier running game.
However, it is important to give credit where it is due. Jordan Ellis (790 rush yards, 6 TD) has had to do much of the work on his own, carrying the ball 194 times in the first 11 games. To put that into perspective, the player with the second most carries is Zacchaeus, with 27. Ellis, although small at 5-11, 215 lbs, is a tough running back who is capable of carrying the football 25 times in a game. Also to his credit, Ellis has not fumbled the football once this season. Although UVA’s run game may not be anything spectacular, Bud Foster can certainly bet on Ellis being a significant part of the game plan for the Cavaliers.
- The Improvement of the Defense
It was going to take a revolutionary type effort to put together a viable Virginia defense in 2017. Last season, the Wahoos surrendered a face-palming 33.8 points per game, along with 446.6 yards per contest. However, a lot has changed since that 2-10 season, as the 2017 Cavaliers give up only 28.2 points per game and 359 yards per contest. How have things changed so quickly?
First, the secondary has improved immensely; Virginia only gives up 182.9 yards through the air per game, which is 19th in college football. S Quin Blanding (103 tackles, 4 interceptions), DB Brenton Nelson (53 tackles, 4 interceptions) and DB Juan Thornhill (47 tackles, 3 interceptions) have played a major role in a defense that ranks 15th in passes intercepted.
Also, Virginia has improved their redzone defense drastically. In 2016, Virginia gave up scores on 92.7 % of opponents redzone trips, which was 123rd in college football. This season, the story has been much different: UVA has changed that percentage to 75%, which is 16th in college football. If Virginia Tech cannot improve on their pedestrian 83% redzone efficiency, then the Wahoo defense could have a field day with the struggling Hokie offense.
- Star Player: LB Micah Kiser
Another big reason for the improvement of UVA’s defense: LB Micah Kiser has emerged as one of college football’s best linebackers. The senior ranks 6th in college football in tackles per game with 10.5, along with 8 tackles for loss, 5 sacks and 4 passes deflected. The advanced metrics like Kiser as well; Pro Football Focus gave Kiser the highest pass-rush grade of any ACC returning linebacker in 2016, with a grade of 75.1.
If Virginia Tech’s running game inconsistencies show up on Friday night, then it could be a fantastic finale for Micah Kiser.
- It’s Been a While
November 29, 2004 was a memorable day for the Virginia Cavaliers. The 8-3, 21st ranked Hokies came into Charlottesville to take on an unranked Virginia team. The Hokies took command early, with a 14-7 lead at halftime. However, the second half was an entirely different tale, as UVA QB Matt Schuab and RB Wali Lundy led UVA to an excellent second half, defeating the Hokies 35-21.
The reason that day is so memorable for the folks of Charlottesville: it was the last time Virginia beat Virginia Tech. The Hokies have defeated the Wahoos 13 consecutive times, and have won 17 out of the last 18 meetings; the Commonwealth cup has made a nice home Blacksburg, VA. The games have not been particularly close either, as only four of those 17 victories have been decided by less than seven points.
While this dominance has given Hokie fans major bragging rights over the years, it may not be what the doctor ordered for Virginia Tech this weekend. Virginia is going to do whatever possible to end this miserable streak, as seniors like Micah Kiser and Kirk Benkert would like to avoid being yet another UVA class to go 0-4 vs. Tech. It is safe to say that the stakes for Virginia is extremely high, as the program is looking to take a major step forward in the Bronco Mendenhall era.