The 100th edition of the Commonwealth Cup is here as Virginia Tech hopes to extend their winning streak to 15 against rival Virginia. However, the Cavaliers enter this game as the favorite with their first guaranteed winning season since 2011 while the Hokies are 4-6 needing a win to keep their hopes alive for avoiding their first losing season in 25 years.
With that said, here are our keys to the game for the Hokies against UVA.
Contain Bryce Perkins
Two years after Jerod Evans, Virginia has found their equivalent in former Arizona State QB and JUCO transfer Bryce Perkins who has emerged in the upper half of quarterbacks in the ACC this season. Perkins has been a dual-threat playmaker completing over 65% of his passes while running for over 700 yards this season.
In the past, Virginia Tech has had their fair share of issues against mobile QBs and Perkins is the best mobile QB in a non-option offense that the Hokies have faced this season, making it all the more important to contain him.
Perkins' rushing ability is undeniable and something that has marveled many including Justin Fuente as he stated during his weekly press conference
“He does not look like he’s trying very hard. He’s such a smooth athlete. He never looks like he’s straining," Fuente said. “The amount of tackles that have been missed, or that he’s made people miss when getting outside and running around is pretty astounding.”
While Jordan Ellis has improved moderately this season, it's the arrival of Perkins that has given Virginia a different type of rushing threat not only with QB runs and options, but also on scrambles where Perkins has shown that he's more than capable of escaping the pocket and turning a nothing play into a significant gain.
This not only means that open-field tackling will be critical, but it also means that the Hokies have to be able to keep contain on to prevent Perkins from escaping and finish the job when they do get opportunities to get a sack.
We've seen the Hokies have struggles in both those areas as Pitt QB Kenny Pickett was able to escape the pocket a couple of times against the Hokies without having to get creative due to blown containment. VT has also had tackling problems struggling to tackle N'Kosi Perry last week and Georgia Tech's Tobias Oliver a few weeks ago including a missed sack that led to a first down against Oliver.
Those struggles at containment have been in part due to the youth but now that they have some experience, the Hokies will need their talented young defensive ends like Emmanuel Belmar, who may not be 100%, and TyJuan Garbutt to not only make plays when given the opportunity, but also play smart football first and keep contain on Bryce Perkins.
In addition, the Hokies will need to be able to rely on their linebackers to be in position to make a play and complete an open-field tackle should Perkins escape the pocket. Failure in these two areas and the Hokies' defense will face disaster from the first true dual-threat QB on a non-option team they've faced this season.
Establish the Run
While Virginia has a very good defense overall, it has been their pass defense leading the way ranking in the top 20 in passing yards allowed per game Meanwhile, their rush defense has been solid, but is averaging just over 4.3 yards per carry. For the Hokies, they'll have to establish a competent and varied rushing attack against a UVA secondary loaded with talent including star CB Bryce Hall and talented senior safety Juan Thornhill.
Steven Peoples has shown improvement averaging a career-high 5.1 yards per carry. However, Peoples' improvement goes beyond the numbers as though his touches have been semi-limited, he has shown greater explosiveness and speed that has made him effective beyond his traditional role as a power runner built for third and short, and goal-line situations.
Despite that improvement, the Hokies haven't used him or Deshawn McClease consistently on exterior runs, instead sticking with jet sweeps that have had a mixed bag of success with most of that success coming early in games.
For the Hokies, they'll have to not only establish a more consistent rushing attack with Peoples, who hasn't had over 60 yards in his past 5 games, but they'll also need to add some more creativity with outside runs. While the jet sweep works early, not adding variation run plays off of it has made it predictable by the second half and caused the Hokies' offense to struggle especially as they stick with the same few rushing plays that become relatively predictable for defensive coordinators with any sort of competence.
If Virginia Tech is going to get their offense going, they have to establish the run and that starts with feeding Steven Peoples, and giving him a diverse rushing package that lacks predictably and features plenty of variations to force UVA's defense to be reactive and not proactive in their approach throughout the game.
Avoid Freshman-Like Mistakes
Part of the reason for Virginia Tech's struggles have been the multitude of mistakes from miscommunications to false starts and offensive line miscues at home to unnecessary penalties that extend opponents' drive. While the Hokies have made some improvements as the season has progressed in terms of making less obvious freshman-like mistakes, Virginia Tech still has lots of room to improve and needs to do so against a Virginia team that will be ready to pounce on the Hokies' mistakes.
With their recent improvement, the Hokies are now tied for 40th nationally in fewest penalties per game, an impressive turnaround from the start of the season. However, UVA has averaged almost a penalty fewer per game (4.45 to 5.40) as the Cavaliers have received praise for their discipline this season.
While penalties are the obvious area, the avoidance of freshman-like mistakes goes beyond that to other areas that are less easy to see. That includes last week on punt coverage when now former Miami WR Jeff Thomas returned a punt for a TD off a couple bounces where he was able to get VT's punt coverage unit to turn their focus off of Thomas when Thomas acted like he wasn't going to pick it up.
Freshman-like mistakes that are even that small in nature have cost the Hokies time and time again this season and are something that they simply can't afford against a more experienced Virginia team that will be ready to take advantage should they happen. If the Hokies can avoid those mistakes, they'll give themselves a much better chance to extend their winning streak to 15 and keep their season going.
Photo Credit: Harley Taylor
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