For the past 14 seasons, Virginia Tech has been the kings of the Commonwealth with a few close calls mixed in with plenty of moments of utter dominance. Throughout the past 14 years, there hasn’t been a single season where Virginia Tech didn’t seem like the favorite even by the smallest of margins even as the Hokies fell from their 10-win minimum plateau to simply surviving to reach a bowl game under Frank Beamer.
Under Justin Fuente, that dominance showed no signs of wavering after an annihilation of the Cavaliers two years ago and a 10-0 victory at Virginia last season that many believed might be the Cavaliers’ best chance to beat a Justin Fuente Virginia Tech team for years.
Instead, the Hokies enter this year’s Commonwealth Cup as the underdogs in the midst of a four-game losing streak and a 4-6 season that could be the Hokies’ first losing season in 25 years. Meanwhile, Bronco Mendenhall and the Virginia Cavaliers enter this game as the deserving favorites for the first time in a long time with UVA poised for their first winning season since 2011.
Now, after 14 years of dominance, the Hokies’ reign over the Commonwealth is in greater peril than it has been in any season since the Hokies joined the ACC. With that said, here’s our pick for today’s 100th edition of the Commonwealth Cup.
For the first time in a long time, Virginia Tech is an underdog in the Commonwealth Cup facing a 7-3 Virginia team that will at least finish the season with as many wins as the Hokies for the first time since before the 14-game winning streak began. A Hokies’ loss today would simply ensure that UVA finished the season with a significant advantage in the wins column, something that seemed impossible two years ago when the Hokies annihilated the Cavaliers in the first Commonwealth Cup clash between Justin Fuente and Bronco Mendenhall.
With the Hokies’ struggles and Cavaliers’ improvement, this sets up to be an opportunity unlike any other for Virginia over the past 15 games between the Commonwealth Cup rivals.
UVA’s success has started with Bryce Perkins, the former Arizona State QB and JUCO transfer who has been a Cavalier version of Jerod Evans this season. The junior has been impressive completiong over 65% of his passes and throwing for 19 TDs and 9 interceptions while running for over 700 yards this season.
This is the first time that Virginia Tech will face a true mobile QB that doesn’t run an option offense. In the past, the Hokies have had their fair share of struggles with dual-threat QBs and they’ll need to be on their game starting with keeping contain to limit Perkins’ ability to escape the pocket. In addition, the Hokies’ LBs will need to be on their game and any player that has a chance to bring Perkins down needs to take advantage.
While the Cavaliers do have an okay running game, the Cavaliers’ passing attack has led the way headlined by versatile WR/HB Olamide Zaccheaus. The Hokies will need their secondary to step up and it starts with Khalil Ladler who is likely to be on Zaccheaus most of the day. In addition, VT’s cornerbacks will need to take a step forward against some of the Cavaliers’ bigger receivers including Hasise Dubois and big play threat Joe Reed (averaging 16.8 yards per reception).
Offensively, Virginia Tech needs to establish some sort of diverse, varied rushing attack that goes beyond running the same set of 3 or 4 plays. Steven Peoples has taken a large step forward athletically including becoming a running back who can be effective in space. The Hokies should adjust accordingly while also looking to use Deshawn McClease and Terius Wheatley as change-of-pace backs to compliment.
Ryan Willis struggled immensely against Miami last week and faces another tough challenge against a Virginia defense loaded with talent in the secondary. Like last week, the Hokies will need to take some chances through the air to create space for the underneath routes that they like to use plenty of whether they want to or not. In addition, the Hokies need Willis to be a lot more accurate this week after his passes seemed to be consistently low or underthrown throughout the game, leading to either incompletions or completions with gains limited by the quality of pass.
For Brad Cornelsen, he has to be unafraid to take some chances in this game with his playcalling and bring more variations to his vertical passing game and rushing attack with both areas seeing a high amount of predictability. If not, Virginia will be more than capable of making adjustments in the second half as most teams have been able to.
One big advantage for the Hokies will be the fact that this game is taking place at Lane Stadium in front of a fan base desperate for something to hang their hats on after a disastrous October and November during which the Hokies have a singular win at North Carolina. The environment inside Lane Stadium is an x-factor along with the Hokies’ history of winning this game and knowing the standard to uphold.
Virginia Tech has struggled immensely at home coming out of halftime, but expect a fired up Hokies’ team to put together their best second half in Blacksburg since their only home win against William & Mary.
However, Virginia’s defense is significantly better than the Hokies’ youthful, banged up defense while Bryce Perkins has more momentum in recent performances than Ryan Willis, though both will play well in this game. That defensive advantage has proven costly for the Hokies and will be an issue again today with a unit that has suffered more injuries and departures than likely any other team in America.
Virginia Tech will fight to the end, but the clock has struck midnight on the Hokies’ win streak over the Cavaliers. Virginia will take down the Hokies ending VT’s bowl streak and setting the stage for an offseason that will define the trajectory of the Justin Fuente era.