On paper, Saturday’s game vs. Virginia shouldn’t be an issue for Virginia Tech.
The Hokies are better in just about every facet of the game. Virginia Tech has the better offense, the better defense, probably a better special teams unit, and the Hokies are 8-3 on the verge of clinching the ACC Coastal Division championship for the first time since 2011.
In Charlottesville, things are less peachy. Virginia is 2-9 this season and losers of five straight. Bronco Mendenhall has struggled on the field in year one, but believes he’s established the right culture in Virginia.
“What I think we’ve earned is the players’ trust, what I think we’ve earned is a strong culture, what I think we’ve earned is a clear eye to the future,” Mendenhall said. “What we have fallen short of are the tangible results, in terms of wins, but the seeds have been planted, the culture is strong and a baseline has been established with plenty of room to grow.”
Virginia hasn’t won many games, but has played up to their competition on multiple occasions. The Cavaliers hung with North Carolina in the first half, took highly ranked Louisville to the wire and lost by seven points on the road to a much-improved Wake Forest.
“When it comes to rivalry games, you throw records and stats out the window,” said Augie Conte. “When it comes to rivalry games, it doesn’t matter how your season has gone. Anything is possible in rivalry games.”
If Virginia Tech wants to avoid the upset and continue the 12-game win streak, they’ll need to run the ball more effectively. The Hokies rank 61st in rushing offense, and average only four yards per carry. Against Notre Dame, Virginia Tech ran for 152 yards on 47 carries, a subpar 3.2 yards per carry clip.
Despite the numbers, Conte doesn’t think Tech has had many issues running the ball.
“Well I don’t think we’ve had a whole lot of an issue, running the ball against Notre Dame who’s probably one of the best defensive fronts we’ve seen all year, considering we shoved the ball down their throat pretty much the entire game and stayed ahead of the chains,” Conte said. “I really don’t see much of a challenge with the running game.”
Conte believes the offensive line has gelled throughout the year, becoming more and more comfortable with Vance Vice’s system.
“I definitely think we’ve done a good job of learning Coach Vice’s scheme, doing what he wants us to do and obviously it’s been working out pretty well for us,” Conte said. “There’s still some stuff we need to work on, but I definitely think that we’re taking steps in the right direction to get where we want to go by the time the end of the season rolls around.”
Defense has an opportunity to turn things around
Virginia Tech’s defense has allowed nearly 30 points per game in their last four contests. Tech struggled to slow Pittsburgh a few weeks ago, struggled again vs. Georgia Tech and the triple option, and got blitzed in the first half by a prolific Notre Dame offense before settling down.
The offense the Hokies face on Saturday will not be prolific. Virginia is outside the top 100 FBS schools in total offense and scoring offense, averaging less than 24 points per game.
Virginia’s quarterback issues have held the team back. Kurt Benkert led the team until last week, when he was replaced by former starter Matt Johns. Benkert only threw 11 interceptions compared to 20 touchdowns, but completed less than 58 percent of his passes and averaged less than six and a half yards per attempt.
Johns had a less than stellar week vs. Georgia Tech, throwing three interceptions in the Cavaliers 31-17 loss.
Defensive Coordinator Bud Foster said on Monday that no matter who the Cavs throw out their on Saturday, the offense won’t change much.
“They’re going to run their offense,” Foster said. “Both kids can throw the ball well. I think the Benkert kid moves, has a bit more mobility. Both are kids that are very capable and very similar in a lot of ways.”
Virginia’s offense has relied on running back Taquan “Smoke” Mizzell, who’s totaled 827 rushing yards and five touchdowns on just 165 carries.
Coming into the season, Mendenhall wasn’t even sure how effective Mizzell would be for his team. Instead, he’s been their primary option on offense.
“I didn’t think he would be as durable,” Mendenhall said. “I didn’t think he would run as hard. I thought he was an outside the box-only player, more of a finesse player, and he’s tougher and he’s more durable than I at first thought. He’s earned my respect that way, just with a competitive nature and a determination that he’s not afraid of the contact part of the game.”
Hokies maintaining practice schedule for Thanksgiving week
On Tuesday, Justin Fuente maintained that his Hokies’ practice schedule will largely go unchanged. Virginia Tech practiced normally on Monday and will do the same for Tuesday and Wednesday. The team will practice early Thursday morning as well, and afterwards will stay together for a team Thanksgiving meal.
“At that point, kids will be free to go home if they live relatively close,” Fuente said. “If kids can’t go home, all of the coaches, myself and all of our assistant coaches open up our homes to the kids if they want to come, lay on the couch and watch TV and eat some more food.”