For the 100th time, Virginia Tech and Virginia will face off on a football field in a showdown between two teams that have had very unexpected seasons with the Hokies struggling to a 4-6 record while Virginia will head to back-to-back bowl games with a 7-4 record for the first time since 2002-2005. With the Hokies’ struggles and UVA’s solid season, the Hokies will be underdogs in this game for the first time in a long time with confidence at an all-time low entering a Commonwealth Cup matchup among the Hokie faithful.
With that said, here are the key matchups for Virginia Tech against Virginia.
WR Damon Hazelton vs. CB Bryce Hall
There may not be a singular matchup that’s more interesting than the one on the outside between the Hokies’ #1 receiver Damon Hazelton and Virginia’ star cornerback Bryce Hall. Both of these players are top candidates to receive All-ACC recognition in the next couple of weeks and should be a prominent matchup in this game especially given how Hazelton has been Ryan Willis’ favorite target this season and for good reason.
Hazelton has been Virginia Tech’s leading receiver with 45 receptions for 745 yards and 8 touchdowns along with an impressive 16.6 yards per reception. While Hazelton has been primarily successful as a bigger physical receiver winning 50-50 balls down the field or making plays off basic curl routes, Hazelton has shown that he is also a very athletic receiver with very good speed for a player of his size.
Meanwhile, Bryce Hall has proven to be one of the ACC’s best cornerbacks with 55 tackles, 3.5 total tackles for loss, 2 sacks, 2 interceptions, and an insane 19 pass breakups. Hall has become Virginia’s biggest defensive star on a defense looking for new stars after the departures of Micah Kiser, Quin Blanding, and Andrew Brown after last season.
One area that Hazelton won’t have an advantage is in size as Hall has good size for a cornerback at 6’1” and 200 pounds. While that’s still smaller than Hazelton’s 6’2” 225-pound frame, Hall has shown that he is more than capable of being able to compete with bigger receivers and should give the redshirt sophomore a more significant challenge. Given Hall’s skill set, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Hokies limit their 50-50 ball plays to Hazelton even if it’s at least worth taking a shot to see what he can do against a player like Hall especially with how easy he has made it look at times.
While lots of NFL scouts will likely have their attention on this matchup, this matchup also could have a very significant impact on this game. If Hall can find a way to contain Hazelton, it’ll force Willis to turn to his secondary options that are either not 100% (Eric Kumah, Hezekiah Grimsley) or promising but still true freshman (Tre Turner), something that likely would be advantageous for UVA.
If not, Hazelton could be poised to make an impressive Commonwealth Cup debut that could help extend the Hokies’ season at least to next week.
WHIP LB Khalil Ladler vs. HB/WR Olamide Zaccheaus
Olamide Zaccheaus has developed into one of the ACC’s most versatile player as someone who may be listed as a halfback, but is most known for his role as a pass-catching slot receiver. No matter his position or role on a particular play, the senior from New Jersey has shown that he is Bryce Perkins’ most dangerous weapon and will require plenty of attention from the Hokies’ defense.
Zaccheaus is well on his way to eclipsing 80 receptions for the second-straight season while he is also likely to break the 1,000 receiving yard mark for the first time in his career with 78 receptions for 918 yards and 6 touchdowns this season. In addition, Zaccheaus is averaging a career high 11.8 yards per reception as Bryce Perkins’ favorite target and safety valve when the bigger plays aren’t available.
Expect the Hokies’ whip linebacker to have a large responsibility with Khalil Ladler likely to be used early and often in coverage against Zaccheaus. The Hokies have had moderate success using Ladler in coverage in the slot even when that slot receiver has been the opponent’s primary target including Florida State’s NyQwan Murray.
However, this may be Ladler’s toughest challenge yet and one that the Hokies will have to adjust for if Ladler and the Hokies’ nickelback can’t contain the speedy slot playmaker. If Ladler can rise up to the challenge, Bryce Perkins will have to look to his secondary options to step up against the Hokies.
Virginia Tech vs. Third Quarters
Virginia Tech’s third quarter struggles once again showed up as for the fourth time in the past six games (all of which came at home), the Hokies allowed at least 14 points without scoring a single point in response. Miami had a 21-0 third quarter advantage, the largest for any team against the Hokies this season, putting the game out of reach of a VT team that once again had few answers, none of which materialized whether that was due to errors or uninspired playcalling.
At this point, it’s no longer a once or twice occurrence but rather a serious problem where the blame is no one else but Justin Fuente and his staff’s.
As a coach, you have two responsibilities at halftime: to make sure your players are fired up for the second half and to make adjustments to your opponents while being ready to make more as you see your opponent’s adjustments. In both of those areas, the Hokies have appeared to fail as the Hokies haven’t had answers for their opponents, let alone forced their opponents to find an answer, while not coming out with an extra level of intensity to either take advantage of an energetic Lane Stadium or rally the home fans.
Virginia Tech’s failure in the third quarter are a big reason why the Hokies are on the brink of their first losing season in 25 years and having a game against Marshall scheduled next week should they win rather than knowing that they’ll have an extra month of practices for their young team. If the Hokies can’t improve coming out of the locker room, expect Virginia Tech to be watching the rest of the 2018 college football season and not be a part of it.