14 straight years. Over 5,100 days. That’s how long Virginia Tech has held the Commonwealth Cup, but if the trend of recent weeks continues, it will stop right there.
Virginia Tech enters Friday afternoon’s contest losers of four straight. The Hokies sit with a record of 4-6 and will take on a Virginia squad that is a respectable 7-4. Still, it’s Virginia, and no matter how bad Virginia Tech has been of late, this is the one team whose number the Hokies have had no matter the circumstance.
“This game is my favorite game of the year,” senior Ricky Walker said. “It’s nothing like playing those guys. No matter what, they always think they’re better than us, and we just keep on winning, and just dominate… at the end of the day we just want to keep that cup in Blacksburg.”
It’s been discussed repeatedly that this is the youngest Virginia Tech team in recent memory. That provides a number of challenges, and one of them is demonstrating the importance of the rivalry. Head coach Justin Fuente has a few tricks up his sleeve for the lead-up to the game.
“We’ve got several videos from former guys that we’ll show to our kids,” Fuente said. “Some of them are the well-known guys and some of them aren’t. We have a lot of guys on this team that have not played in this game before. We’ll take some time today to continue to educate them on the rivalry and what it means to play in a game like this.”
The rivalry means everything to the in-state guys, but for those that come from out-of-state, it’s a learning experience to comprehend the resentment that might exist. While some of the players typically take the onus to inform some of the guys on the importance of the rivalry, quarterback Ryan Willis insists that Fuente has led the charge.
“They’ve really stressed how important this is,” Willis said. “Beating Virginia year in and year out is expected. I want to win more than anything in the world. I think all of the guys do.”
Dating all the way back to the ACC Kickoff in July, Virginia was chirping about beating Virginia Tech in 2018. It prompted Walker to say “L-O-L” on that occasion, but they’ve kept the message consistent throughout the entire year. Coach Bronco Mendenhall gave his players the option, and none of them decided to talk to media this week, instead opting to place their complete focus on the task at hand.
The Cavaliers have a number of talented players, but perhaps no more have the potential to give the Hokies a headache on Friday than quarterback Bryce Perkins.
“The thing that jumps off the film to me on Bryce is he does not ever look like he’s trying very hard,” Fuente said. “He’s such a smooth athlete. He never looks like he’s straining. The amount of tackles that he’s made people miss when running around is pretty astounding. He’s certainly not the only reason, but he’s been a catalyst for them in their success.”
Defensive coordinator Bud Foster will have his hands full later this week, as his defenses have been known to be susceptible to mobile quarterbacks in the past. Perkins is by the far the biggest dual-threat quarterback that the Hokies have faced in 2018. The junior has passed for 2,213 yards, 19 touchdowns, and nine interceptions. On the ground, Perkins has rushed for 730 yards and nine touchdowns.
“It’s a big-time challenge,” Foster said. “He is a dynamic athlete. Does tremendous things with the ball in his hand. I think every pass play also has a designed draw in it. That presents a lot of problems. All of a sudden you’re sending out linebackers in coverage to get in the void areas of your zone, then all of a sudden he sees a window. We need to have a plan to keep him in the pocket.”
Friday’s game could also be the final time that the six Virginia Tech seniors suit up in maroon and orange. Walker, Vinny Mihota, Kyle Chung, Braxton Pfaff, Yosuah Nijman, and Steven Peoples have all been class acts on and off the field.
A former walk-on, Peoples has worked his way up to the premier running back this year. He’s gotten his time to shine, but others still remember his under-the-radar work from early on.
“He played on special teams his freshman year,” Chung said. “We were actually playing UVA and he made this huge hit that set the tone for the rest of the game. He’s a tough, tough guy and a tough runner. I love playing for him.”
Peoples has taken one of the biggest jumps from 2017 to 2018. He’s a player who will never shortchange anyone on effort, and he’s used that to rush for 586 yards and five touchdowns this season.
“Steven Peoples is a workhorse,” Willis said. “He doesn’t say much, but he just brings his lunch pail every day and goes to work. He’s one of those guys you can lean on. He gives his all every play.”
Of course, the face of Virginia Tech this year is none other than the bell cow Ricky Walker. Walker has been dinged up with a foot injury this year, and his numbers haven’t quite lived up to those from 2017. He’s racked up 36 tackles with 7.5 tackles for loss. However, Foster maintains that the senior defensive tackle has been as good as ever.
“He’s played elite,” Foster said. “I’m disappointed for Ricky that his supporting cast has not been what it has been the previous couple years. I hope he gets the recognition he deserves, because he really is one of the best defensive tackles in our league and in the country. He’s an elite young man all-around, just the way he goes about everything he does.”
Whether Friday is Walker’s last game in a Virginia Tech uniform or sometime later in December, he’ll be remembered long after for reasons other than the stats that he garnered. Walker has been a model football player in terms of work ethic, leadership, and character off the field.
“Ricky Walker to me, the day he walked in the door, I knew he was going to be a special player and a special person,” Foster said. “He’s proven that since he’s been here. He’s going to be successful with whatever he tries to do.”
Every coach and player knows the streak that will be in play when they take the field on Senior Day. Despite the disappointment that’s existed this year, one win over the Hoos could be just what the doctor ordered.
“This weekend and this win, it could erase all of those negative things that have happened that last month,” Pfaff said.
Yes, indeed it could.