When Virginia Tech and Virginia take the field at Scott Stadium on Black Friday, the stakes will be about as high as they come. The winner prepares for a clash against Clemson in the ACC Championship Game with the hopes of an Orange Bowl bid in the distance, while the loser packs it up and awaits its bowl announcement next week.
It hasn’t been this way since 2011 and Hokies fans remember how that occasion ended: Virginia Tech 38, Virginia 0.
Now, the Hokies and Hoos both sit with 8-3 overall records and 5-2 records in the conference. It all brings some added fire to a rivalry that already has its sparks.
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“It’s good for the Commonwealth that the teams are having fairly successful years,” Virginia Tech head coach Justin Fuente said. “The thing about competition and rivalries and all that sort of stuff when you are in it, it still comes down to execution. There’s emotion involved and all the things that come with big games, it still comes down to preparation and execution and being able to focus on doing your job on a consistent basis regardless of the circumstances. It’s heated and as important of a rivalry as there is, when both teams have had success, it enhances that. Makes it a better spectacle I guess.”
Back when Virginia Tech was in the Big East and UVA was in the ACC, the game was simply a battle between two rivals for bragging rights. Defensive coordinator Bud Foster explained that since the Hokies joined the ACC, it’s only intensified the Commonwealth Clash.
“This game now with what’s on the line, I think it’s even brought in an even bigger light, so to speak, with a championship kind of on the line too besides who has state bragging rights,” Foster said. “So I think that really makes it exciting. I think a lot different than what it was 20 years ago, when we were in the Big East and they were in the ACC. That was just strictly a rivalry game. Now there’s so much more that goes into it besides being a rivalry game.”
How do the players respond to this rivalry? Even someone who didn’t grow up in the state of Virginia can see just how much it means to everyone involved as soon as Virginia week arrived as a freshman.
“My freshman year as soon as we got to this week I could tell it felt a little bit different,” said Virginia Tech tight end and Colorado native Dalton Keene. “There’s a lot of hate out there for them and I figured that out pretty quickly. Once I got out on the field playing against them I understood it. This game definitely means a lot to me and a lot to this team.”
The animosity is widespread between the two fan bases. Perhaps no one player gets the brunt of that hate more than Dax Hollifield.
The sophomore linebacker takes things to another level, as has been the case recently with his nose injury that required five stitches after the North Carolina game. It’s since opened up on a number of instances and left a bloody mess in the middle of the game.
“I told him, ‘you finally look like a big-time linebacker right now.’ And the guy’s getting blood coming down his face and all that stuff,” Foster said. “And he kind of eats up all that stuff, just knowing him… That’s how he is getting ready to go into a chemistry exam. He’s bouncing and jumping around and banging off the walls, and he’ll high five you coming out knowing that he aced that thing. So he’s a high-energy, unique individual.”
That spirited enthusiasm sometimes rubs people the wrong way.
Hollifield started the game last year as a true freshman and immediately earned the ire of Cavaliers everywhere due to his boisterous energy. After a third down incompletion from Bryce Perkins in the first quarter, Hollifield gave an ode to Luther Maddy and jumped around, pointing for Perkins to get off the field as the quarterback limped to the sideline.
“They don’t like me at all,” Hollifield said of the UVA fan base. “I don’t know why they don’t. I think it was Bryce Perkins I told to get off the field. I just wanted to do what Luther Maddy did and tell him to get off the field. I didn’t know his ankle was hurting or anything like that. I was just trying to do what my boy Luther did. They don’t like me for that, but it’s all right. I’m just here to play football.”
Much of Virginia Tech’s focus on Friday will be exactly that, keeping Perkins on the sideline. The Hokies have done it recently against opposing offenses by controlling the time of possession and getting off the field on third down. Over the past three games, opponents are 11-for-45 (24.4 percent) on third down, a number that is classic Bud Foster. Wisconsin ranks No. 1 in the nation in third down conversion percentage defense at 24.6 percent.
Foster and Co. will be looking to do much of the same against the Perkins-dominated offense. The senior signal caller has passed for 2,630 yards with 15 touchdowns and eight interceptions this season. He also leads the team rushing, a unit that is No. 118 nationally in rushing offense, with 523 yards and nine touchdowns.
“Every throw it seems has a designed quarterback run with it,” Foster said. “So we’re going to have to do an awesome job of keeping him leveraged, keeping rush lanes tight, being able to come off blocks, not get run by people. You know, those quarterback draws, we need to do a good job of restricting the running lane and closing the vertical separation between the line and the linebackers. It presents tremendous challenges.”
“He’s very athletic,” linebacker Rayshard Ashby said. “He’s a great playmaker. He brings a lot of juice to that team. All the decision making is going to go through him. We’re definitely going to try to contain him and make it hard for him to step up and not create running lanes for him to have.”
With nearly four decades in the business, Foster has come across his fair share of quarterbacks. So who does Perkins remind him of the most?
“Donovan McNabb, just with his ability, his strength when he runs,” Foster said. “His ability to throw on the run. His ability to create plays that aren’t there and be a big-time running back. They design quarterback runs like they did with Donovan back in the day. That’s probably who he reminds me the most of.”
As has been the case all year, Braxton Burmeister will play the role of scout team quarterback and simulate Perkins this week in practice. Burmeister, who’s a mobile quarterback himself coming over from Oregon, has been a big part of Virginia Tech’s weekly preparation after his eligibility waiver was denied earlier in the fall.
“Braxton is a pretty good athlete,” Fuente said. “Really good athlete actually. He’s been doing a great job all season long. We played Georgia Tech and he played those athletic guys. It’s hard to simulate, [Perkins] makes so many plays both designed and improvised and seems to keep his eyes down field when he needs to… He does a great job, he cuts back on people all the time. Braxton will do that job for us to the best of his ability. I don’t know that you could fully simulate how efficient he’s been.”
On Friday mid-day, those in the state of Virginia will get a definitive answer to see how the rivalry played out. With a Hokies’ victory, the streak would extend to 16 straight, and the season would go down as one of the best turnarounds in the history of the program.
“I’ll sit back at one time and say, ‘Boy, this year was really special, that year was really special.’ There were a lot of those. But this year right now is really special,” Foster said. “Locker rooms are different when you’re winning and you’re having fun and you’ve believing in each other and trusting one another. There’s a different kind of chatter, there’s a different enthusiasm. And we’re hearing that right now.”
Virginia Tech Notes
- Tayvion Robinson and Tre Turner were banged up at the end of the Pittsburgh game. Fuente didn’t care to provide any real update on their status. “Everybody is doing awesome. They are all doing great, all doing great.”
- Rayshard Ashby earned ACC Linebacker of the Week for the fifth time this season following his performance against Pitt. No other player in the conference has received the honor as frequently. “We recognize guys on Sunday after the game and we usually put their stats up and a couple plays because I want both sides of the ball to see that kind of stuff,” Fuente said. “We watch special teams all together. It’s kind of a nice time for guys to see each other and kind of puff their chests up a little bit. For Ashby, you put all the statistics up there and at the bottom I just put, ‘And he runs the show.’”