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Virginia Tech’s road to the ACC Championship Game goes through in-state rival UVA. The Hokies and Hoos have met head-to-head in a winner-take-all game for the Coastal Division in 2007 and 2011, with the Hokies winning both games. This time around the Hokies can win the Coastal, but all UVA can do is improve their record to 3-8 and end Tech’s 12-game winning streak.
Winning the Coastal Division would be a great accomplishment for Justin Fuente in his first season. It would put the Hokies at 9-3, which would keep them alive for a 10-win season, and it would get the Hokies back in the routine of competing for championships. If Tech plays in that game, I think Fuente has a serious case for ACC Coach of the Year.
Playing in the ACC Championship Game is important for another reason. It keeps the streak alive of recruiting classes which at one point or another played for an ACC Championship (or at least redshirted while their older teammates play for one). 2011 was the last time the Hokies played for an ACC Championship. The incoming group of players in 2012 have never been part of a team who has played in that game. Five of those guys are left: Augie Conte, Brenden Motley, Der’Woun Greene, Ken Ekanem and Nigel Williams. If UVA wins on Saturday, that 2012 recruiting class will be the first Tech class in a long time to never play for a championship. To me, it’s important that link not be broken on Saturday. It helps keep the winning culture intact.
Not to mention that it’s a chance to continue to establish dominance in a rivalry that has been lopsided in recent years. The Hokies will be going for their 13th win in a row against their in-state rival. The two schools don’t recruit against each other anymore, mostly because UVA has been totally shunned by almost all major in-state recruits recently. If you think Tech hasn’t fared well in-state, you should look up the Hoos and see what they’ve done. Still, there are plenty of guys on each team who know each other and there are bragging rights on the line for both fan bases.
The Hoos enter the game with a 2-9 record. They’ve dropped their last five games after defeating Central Michigan and Duke in back-to-back contests. They haven’t won since October 1, though their schedule since then hasn’t exactly been easy. They’ll face perhaps their biggest test of that stretch when they take on a Virginia Tech team that is chasing after the Coastal Division title.
Virginia has some good players on both sides of the ball, but not nearly enough. They lack talent at most positions, their depth is poor, and their quarterbacks have a tendency to turn the ball over. That’s not a recipe for success. Bronco Mendenhall has a long road of recruiting and coaching ahead of him.
Let’s take a look at some of the most important aspects of this game.
Taquan “Smoke” Mizzell (5-10, 195, Sr.) was a big time recruit out of Bayside High School. Though his career might not have lived up to his high school offer list, he certainly hasn’t had much help in Charlottesville. Nobody knows it because UVA’s record is so bad, but Mizzell has had a very good senior season and has put himself in a position to be drafted next spring. NFL scouts will like his versatility as a running back.
Here are Smoke’s stats for this season…
Rushing: 165 carries for 827 yards, 5 yards per carry, 5 TDs
Receiving: 51 catches, 406 yards, 8 yards per catch, 6 TDs
If you’ve got over 1200 all-purpose yards through 11 games you are doing something right, especially when you aren’t surrounded by particularly good talent.
Believe it or not, Mizzell hasn’t had very many carries against the Hokies during his career.
2015: 11 carries, 26 yards, 2.4 ypc
2014: 1 carry, 2 yards, 2 ypc
2013: 0 carries
Until this season, he’s always been a bigger threat out of the backfield. He’s taken on a larger role this season and he’s done a good job. He’s not the biggest guy in the world though, and usually it’s bigger backs (and big, athletic quarterbacks) who cause the most trouble for Virginia Tech’s defense in the running game.
UVA’s Quarterback Issues
East Carolina transfer Kurt Benkert (6-4, 230, r-Jr.) started the first 10 games of the season for UVA. He threw for 2,430 yards and he’s got a good arm, but he threw 11 interceptions and had some fumbling issues as well. Meanwhile, he only completed 57.6% of his passes, which isn’t a particularly efficient number these days.
Bronco Mendenhall eventually pulled Benkert and started Matt Johns (6-5, 215, r-Sr.) last week against Georgia Tech. Johns started every game for UVA in 2015, and he’s got plenty of experience. However, he was arguably worse than Benkert in UVA’s 31-17 loss. Johns threw for only 220 yards on 44 attempts (a very low yards-per-attempt number) and he also threw three interceptions, including a big pick that was returned for a touchdown late in the game.
Nevertheless, Mendenhall says that Johns will start at quarterback against the Hokies on Saturday. Like Benkert, he has always had a problem with turnovers. He threw 17 last year in 12 games, and he threw five in limited action in 2014. For his career, Johns has thrown 25 interceptions to just 30 touchdowns. Not all of that is his fault, considering UVA is generally trailing and they have to force the issue, but it’s interesting that Mendenhall would choose a turnover prone senior over a turnover prone junior.
It’s hard to see what Mendenhall is thinking with that move. I’m sure he thought that Johns gave the team a better chance to win against Georgia Tech, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. When turnovers are the issue for both guys, and you are building the program, go with the younger guy. Perhaps we’ll see both players in action on Saturday.
In case you’re wondering, here are Johns’ career stats against Virginia Tech…
2014: 3-of-6, 65 yards
2015: 18-of-38, 171 yards, 1 TD, 2 INTs
Total: 21-of-44 (47.7%), 1 TD, 2 INTs
That’s not particularly good, and he’ll be facing a Tech defense that has allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete just 49.1 percent of their passes this season.
Johns also isn’t particularly mobile. He ran for just 86 yards (1.4 yards per carry) last season, though 58 of those did come against the Hokies. Still, he’s not the type of player Bud Foster needs to gameplan for in the running game.
Quarterback play is very important, and Virginia Tech has a huge advantage at this position.
Thanks in part to subpar quarterback play, the Hoos have struggled offensively all season. Check out their advanced stats…
S&P+ offense: #86
Finishing Drives: #79
Turnover margin: #112
Rushing S&P+: #89
Passing S&P+: #105
The Hoos don’t do anything well on a consistent basis, and that makes Saturday’s game a very good matchup for the Virginia Tech defense.
NFL Players on Defense, but Unit Still Subpar
While the Hoos are a very poor team with a 2-9 record, they do have a few players on defense anybody would love to have. Free safety Quin Blanding (6-2, 215, Jr.) and middle linebacker Micah Kiser (6-2, 240, Sr.) are excellent players, and both are expected to be relatively high picks in the NFL Draft.
Kiser is probably UVA’s most consistent defensive player. The former 4-star recruit from Maryland was offered by the Hokies, and he would most definitely be Tech’s starting middle linebacker right now had he made a different decision. He leads UVA in tackles with 120, he’s second in tackles for loss with 10, and he’s first in sacks with 6.5. He’s also forced four fumbles this season, which is tops on the team.
Kiser is rated the No. 5 inside linebacker prospect in the country by NFL Draft Scout. He’s a very good player who must be accounted for.
Blanding is second on the team with 108 tackles, but if your free safety has 108 tackles it’s generally a sign that your defense hasn’t been playing well this season. Blanding has tremendous size and is rated the No. 3 safety prospect in the 2018 NFL Draft.
Former 5-star recruit Andrew Brown (6-4, 290, Jr.) has finally come around with the new coaching staff. Brown plays defensive end in Mendenhall’s 3-4 scheme, which seems to be the right fit for him. He leads the team with 13 tackles for loss, and he’s also added six sacks.
Unfortunately for UVA, three players don’t make a defense. The Hoos have had their moments this season, but overall they just haven’t been able to play consistent football on that side of the ball. There are still major problems with talent and depth. Here are some of their defensive numbers this year…
Scoring Defense: 31.1 ppg, No. 93 nationally
Rushing Defense: 181 ypg, No. 77 nationally
Passing Defense: 253.5 ypg, No. 92 nationally
Pass Efficiency Defense: 148.61, No. 117 nationally
Total Defense: 434.5 ypg, No. 89 nationally
Those are terrible numbers despite putting three very good players on the field at all levels of the defense, and it goes to show that playing defense is a team game.
UVA’s pass efficiency defense numbers stand out to me. They are one of the least efficient pass defenses in the country (#117 out of 128 teams). Meanwhile, Jerod Evans is #12 nationally with an efficiency rating of 157.10. That’s a terrible matchup for the Hoos, and it’s one the Hokies must exploit.
If you’re wondering about the advanced stats, they aren’t much better. The Hoos have been a bit above average stopping the run, but again their pass defense numbers are very low…
Rushing S&P+: No. 46
Rushing Success Rate: No. 48
Rushing IsoPPP (big plays): No. 100
Power Success Rate: No. 51
Stuff Rate: No. 71
Passing S&P+: No. 87
Passing Success Rate: No. 116
Passing IsoPPP (big plays): No. 96
UVA has been okay at stopping the run this year, but not nearly good enough to offset how awful they’ve been at stopping the pass. You’ve got to like the matchup if you are a Virginia Tech fan.
Outsiders on the Sideline
For years Frank Beamer coached the Hokies against UVA. Beamer understood the rivalry very well, being from the state of Virginia and playing for the Hokies. Bronco Mendenhall’s two predecessors also had a great understanding of the rivalry because of their backgrounds…
Mike London: Virginia native, brother played for UVA, coached nearly his entire career in Virginia
Al Groh: UVA grad, son played quarterback for UVA
Both of those guys had a great understanding of the Virginia Tech-UVA rivalry, not that it did them a lot of good.
Meanwhile, Bronco Mendenhall and Justin Fuente have no such understanding of the rivalry.
Mendenhall: Grew up in Utah, played at Oregon State, coached at BYU
Fuente: Grew up in Oklahoma, has coached in Texas, Tennessee and Illinois
It’s a little odd to have a couple of outsiders coaching this game, particularly when they are both in their first season.
Still, in the end it’s just a football game. You prepare the same way each and every week. Not every school out there has an alma mater or an in-state guy coaching them in their rivalry game. I think the Hokies and the Hoos were unique in that regard for many years. Now they aren’t, but I don’t expect it to change the dynamic of the rivalry.
Twelve in a row. 16 out of the last 17. 19 out of 23 since the Beamer Bowl Era began in 1993. When No. 25 Virginia Tech defeated No. 23 UVA in Charlottesville in the final game of the season in 1993, little did we know that it was the beginning of the most dominant era of this rivalry since it began back in 1895. Sure, the Hoos won the next meeting in 1994, and they won again in 1997 and 1998. But the simple truth of the matter was that the Hokies were slowly but surely establishing their dominance over UVA in in-state recruiting. That, combined with a bad coaching hire or two, has turned the Hoos into one of the worst programs in the Power 5 conferences.
When I was a kid growing up in the mid-90s, this rivalry seemed dead-even. Even the overall record between the two programs was pretty even. Now it sits at 55-37-5 in favor of the Hokies. And remember, UVA won the first eight meetings and 11 of the first 14. Things haven’t exactly gone their way since about 1927, except for one stretch in the late 40s and early 50s. This is a rivalry that the Hokies own.
UVA has to win again at some point. Even a broken clock is right twice a day. But I don’t get the feeling that win is coming this season. All the numbers point to the Hokies winning this game without much of a problem. Sure, UVA has nothing to lose. They also have nothing to play for in terms of championships or bowls, while the Hokies have a lot riding on the line. I just can’t see the Hoos pulling the upset this year. They missed a golden opportunity in 2014 and 2015, but they let fourth quarter leads slip through their fingers. I don’t expect them to be leading in the fourth quarter this time around.
The forecast for Saturday calls for low winds with a temperature of 49 degrees at kickoff. For those of you who made the trip to South Bend last week, you’ll feel like you’re in a heat wave. Either way, the high in Orlando on December 3rd is 77 degrees. Let’s put this baby to bed and go enjoy some Florida weather in December.
Prediction: Virginia Tech 34, UVA 17
Will Stewart’s Take: 2003 seems like a long time ago. I remember sitting in the upper deck of Scott Stadium, watching future NFL players Matt Schaub and Heath Miller carve up a Tech defense that seemed oddly disinterested in defending the tight end. The Hokies weren’t that great on offense that day, either, and they made a critical mistake on special teams, negating a blocked punt for a touchdown by Eric Green with an offsides. It seemed as if VT could never get any momentum going in that game, and Virginia had a solid team and two great players that could exploit matchups.
My game recap from that day opens with this line: “After 1,510 days in Virginia Tech’s possession, the Commonwealth Cup is going back to Charlottesville.”
Well, as of yesterday (today’s tweet hasn’t come out yet as of this writing), that streak was significantly longer:
Virginia Tech has held the Commonwealth Cup for 4378 days. #Hokies
— Commonwealth Cup (@CommonwlthCup) November 22, 2016
That’s all fine and dandy, but it doesn’t mean anything for this year’s game. One of these days, Virginia Tech is going to lose to Virginia again, and we’re all going to be very shocked and surprised. I imagine Texas fans were floored when Kansas finally toppled them, after 13 straight losses since 1996. (Ignore the “since 1938” mentions … the two teams didn’t even play from 1939-1995.) This isn’t a vintage Texas team, but Kansas is one of the worst teams in FBS (battling Rutgers for that crown), so the end of the streak came as a stunner.
Virginia has enough good players to pull it off, especially against a Virginia Tech team that at times seems incredibly tough and resilient mentally, but at other times goes AWOL. As the Georgia Tech game showed two weeks ago, the Hokies can even wig out at home.
That’s a lot of words to express the message “anything can happen, and some day it will.” But until then, and probably after, I’ll keep picking the Hokies. I’m not going to pick Virginia Tech to hang 40-plus points on the Hoos, but other than that, it should be a comfortable win, on par with Tech’s 33-21 win in 2007.
Will’s Prediction: Virginia Tech 31, Virginia 20
Ricky LaBlue’s Take: Before I give my thoughts on the Virginia game, I would like to point out I was the only one of our esteemed panel to correctly pick a Virginia Tech win last week over Notre Dame. Thank you.
On paper, Virginia Tech should win this game with the starters eating Thanksgiving leftovers in the fourth quarter.
However, for reasons I stated earlier this week, Virginia has played up to their competition on several occasions this season. Virginia kept it close with North Carolina for a half, gave quite the scare to Louisville and barely lost to Wake Forest, who’s no longer a doormat in the ACC Atlantic.
Virginia Tech’s level of play has dropped considerably from earlier in the season. The last few weeks, this team has looked nothing like the group that made Boston College and East Carolina reconsider playing the rest of their schedule. Tech escaped with a win over Duke, lost to Georgia Tech at home and got blasted by a lowly Notre Dame team for the first quarter and some change.
As competitive as Virginia has been vs. superior competition, they aren’t hanging around for longer than a half. Virginia Tech is the far-superior team. The seniors have played well all season and it would be surprising to see that change this week. I expect a big game from the front four, led by Ken Ekanem and Woody Baron. Tech brings the Virginia offense to a halt, the Hokies find some semblance of a running game and Tech continues the streak rather comfortably.
Ricky’s Prediction: Virginia Tech 38, Virginia 13