When Bronco Mendenhall first arrived at Virginia in 2016, the Cavaliers were barely ready to play Richmond, let alone Virginia Tech.
The story looks different in 2020, with the Cavaliers heading to Blacksburg with the Commonwealth Cup after a victory over the Hokies in 2019. The long losing streak ended last November, and the Wahoos enter this weekend’s matchup with a realistic shot of winning at Lane Stadium for the first time since 1998.
“It’s going to come right down to the wire,” Virginia offensive coordinator Robert Anae said. “I think it’s one of those games. Just look at the last two years. I give our kids credit because there were miles and miles to catch up to get to that type of game.”
After losing 52-10 to Virginia Tech in 2016, UVa lost 10-0 in 2017 and 34-31 in overtime in 2018 before winning 39-30 last season.
The Cavaliers built themselves into a program capable of challenging and beating Virginia Tech. UVa won’t need to play way above its average to beat the Hokies, but it will need to perform well in a few areas to build a winning streak in a rivalry dominated for years by Virginia Tech.
Perhaps the most important key to UVa’s success in any game this fall is taking care of the ball. Virginia is a perfect 5-0 this season when winning the turnover battle. When it loses the turnover margin, UVa is 0-4.
In a game of two evenly matched teams, turnovers could very well be the difference. The Hokies have a minus-6 turnover margin in their six losses, while they’re plus-8 in their four victories.
Offensively, both squads enter the game with what should be ample opportunities to score. Virginia allowed 520 passing yards to Boston College the last time out, making consistent errors defensively that led to big passing plays.
At the same time, the Wahoos secured three interceptions to help come up with the win over the Eagles.
“There was a lot of yardage everywhere, so we just didn’t execute our assignments at a very high level, and then we made some critical plays when it really mattered, which was huge,” defensive coordinator Nick Howell said.
When it comes to the mistakes, Howell believes they can be improved.
“There’s no like magical formula or rocket science,” Howell said. “When things go wrong, the chances that it’s something simple is pretty high, and we just got to fix those things.”
The miscues need to be improved. Virginia Tech’s offense struggles as a pure passing attack, but the Hokies are dangerous when they’re able to complete a few passes and lean on their rushing threats, while implementing the occasional play-action pass.
Virginia Tech thrives on the ground, leading the ACC in rushing with 238.9 yards per game. Running back Khalil Herbert is dynamic, and quarterback Hendon Hooker runs well when he’s healthy and on the field. He struggled to stay warm in Virginia Tech’s last game against Clemson, so his action was limited on the cold December night.
Last season, Hooker rushed for a touchdown and added 311 passing yards in the loss to UVa. He put the Hokies in positions to win, but a few turnovers put the Cavaliers over the top.
Virginia Tech’s offensive weapons are more than capable of scoring in bunches against Virginia, though. UVa’s offense can do the same.
Quarterback Brennan Armstrong became the first Virginia quarterback with consecutive 400-yard performances last week, and he’s playing exceptional football. Armstrong, along with a solid offensive line and a dynamic group of receivers, has led the Cavaliers to 40-point outings in three of the last four games.
Mendenhall praised the offensive strategy after the Boston College game, calling the game plan one of the best of the season.
“The design looks good when the guys up front are doing their job, and it starts there,” Anae said. “The design looks good when we’re doing stuff that makes sense for our quarterback.”
Virginia’s offense seems to have found a sweet spot in terms of Armstrong’s play and the understanding of how to best move the ball down the field given the personnel on this team’s roster.
With both defenses struggling and the offenses possessing talented playmakers, the game could turn into a high-scoring affair.
Whatever happens, both sides expect a close contest. Betting lines agree, with Virginia Tech sitting as roughly a field-goal favorite at home.
Winning the turnover battle will be crucial and executing well in all three phases will be a key just as it is every week. While the game matters more, the keys to winning remain the same as a typical week. Even the limited crowd due to COVID-19 restrictions stays constant this week in Blacksburg.
“Every team wants to win every game,” Mendenhall said. “Sometimes when you see the same team for multiple times, you know the players, maybe from the same state or there’s other relationships, it just becomes more personal. The environment, the atmosphere will probably be similar, the personal nature of it will probably be the difference if there is one.”
It’s still football with two evenly matched foes, but the game carries extra importance to everyone involved.
“I don’t know that I’ve ever said it’s just another week,” Virginia Tech head coach Justin Fuente said. “It’s certainly not.”