Hendon Hooker’s pass fell incomplete in the end zone and pure pandemonium ensued. Virginia had just beaten Virginia Tech for the first time since 2003, ending a 15-year winning streak by the Hokies. The fans from Scott Stadium immediately rushed the field, swarming the players from both teams.
It’s a feeling that those donning the maroon and orange haven’t forgotten.
“The thing I keep remembering is them storming the field,” tight end James Mitchell said during Tuesday’s media availability. “I was in the end zone when they did it on the far end and had to walk all the way back, all the way through the crowd to get to our locker room. That kind of lives with me. That’s kind of stuck in my head. We had a bad taste in our mouth after that one, so we definitely want to get a win.”
The Cavaliers’ 39-30 victory last year in Charlottesville isn’t being blocked out and pushed aside by the Hokies. In fact, head coach Justin Fuente is reminding his players of how they were outplayed in 2019 in the leadup to this year’s contest.
“It ultimately came down to they had more energy that day and they wanted to win it more,” defensive tackle Jarrod Hewitt said. “That’s been something that’s eaten at us the last whole year. When Coach Fuente brings it up in a team meeting, he shows examples of how they did play harder than us. It enrages us. You’re disappointed that we let that happen last year, and as a senior this year, it’s not going to happen under my watch. There’s no way they can play harder than we can play in our stadium. It just can’t happen.”
In the film meetings, Fuente has pointed to individual matchups last year where a Virginia player simply wanted it more.
“Not bashing anybody, but the eye in the sky doesn’t lie,” Hewitt added. “The video doesn’t lie. I think that gave us good motivation going into practice today leading off the week of preparation.”
Other Hokies recall the residual effect of that loss against Virginia last year. After trailing at halftime, Virginia Tech put up 21 points in the third quarter to take a 27-20 advantage into the fourth quarter. However, from that point, the Hokies were outscored 19-3 and surrendered control of the Commonwealth Cup.
“Just the week after the game and stuff like that was a very down week in the locker room,” punter Oscar Bradburn said. “It was hard to get up and keep moving forward after a loss like that, especially because of the way the game was played. It was a great game. You can look at the game as a whole and appreciate the way it was played by both teams, the way it came down to the wire. It was a pretty tough loss. It was my toughest loss in fact, for sure. You pick yourself up eventually, but that first week after the game was real tough.”
Virginia Tech had played the role of big brother over the previous 15 years in the rivalry, but last year the little brother reached the point where he was actually bigger and tougher. It brings an added intrigue into this year’s matchup…one that even those who are appearing in the rivalry for the first time have caught wind of.
“It’s been a long season and obviously it hasn’t been going the way we wanted it to, but we still have one more shot to get after those guys we don’t like a lot,” graduate transfer Justus Reed said. “They don’t like us. We don’t like them. I’ve been around college football a long time obviously, so I know about rivalry games. That’s not very hard to pick up on, why and how we don’t like them. Just ready to get the Cup back.”
The Hokies come in losers of four straight in the 2020 season, while the Cavaliers have four consecutive wins. The tide could be shifting, but Virginia Tech hopes to put an end to that.
Initially, the game was expected to be played back in September before activities were paused in Blacksburg. Now, it only feels right that the final game of the season is played between the two rivals and on Senior Day for one of the programs.
“It would mean the world getting the cup back, especially for those seniors,” Mitchell said. “I know this is what they want. What everyone wants in this locker room is to want to end on a win and beat UVA, especially after the bad taste in our mouth from last year.”
“There was 15 years of a streak and we let it go,” Hewitt said. “If you don’t have enough motivation or you don’t have enough just to get that attitude out of you, then you’re in the wrong business, you’re in the wrong sport. There’s obviously a dislike between the two schools. You can say hate, you can say whatever you want, but at the end of the day it’s who is going to prepare the hardest, who is going to play the hardest, and who is going to execute the best is going to win the football game. Not the Cup, not hate. Hate won’t win the game. You have to go out and execute and outperform that team.”
With no eligibility being used this year, Justus Reed and other seniors could return for another year. However, Reed, who has already been in college for seven years, has decided this is his last stint at the college level.
“This is it,” Reed said. “This is my last go round. It’s been a long time. I thought about it a little bit at the beginning of the year, but no. This is it. Seven [years] is enough for me.”
It’s also the time of the year when guys begin to think about their NFL Draft stock and where they could potentially be drafted. Mitchell is a guy to monitor, and he has put in a request to get feedback.
“I’m really just focused on finishing the season out strong,” Mitchell said. “Just continuing to stay healthy. I really want to get this last win, so that’s all that’s been on my mind here lately.”
Bradburn will be one of those seniors who is honored on Saturday. While his future is still up in the air, he holds a deep appreciation for the chance that Virginia Tech took on a kid from Australia.
“I think I’ve enjoyed it like nothing else I’ve ever enjoyed in my life,” Bradburn said. “I think this has been the best opportunity that I’ve seized in my life, and will probably be the best opportunity that I’ve seized in my life going forward. I can’t picture making a change in my life beyond what I did in Australia four years ago. Having the trajectory of my life change in the four years and stuff. The people I’ve met, the relationships I’ve built, the culture that I’ve become a part of is all something that is extremely special to me.”