Less than 24 hours to Saturday’s kickoff for the Commonwealth Cup. I did a chat earlier Friday. You can read the replay here. And Aaron McFarling and I did a podcast before that. You can get to that here.
You can also check out our stories today about what went wrong for Virginia Tech and Virginia this season that they’re both under .500 heading into the final game of the regular season. I’ve posted the graphic of sad-looking Hokies and Hoos to illustrate the point of the article.
So there’s one last piece to the preview puzzle: today’s matchups post. Let’s get it going …
Virginia at Virginia Tech
- Where: Lane Stadium, Blacksburg
- When: Saturday, 12:01 p.m.
- TV: ESPNU
- Records: Virginia 4-7, 2-5 ACC; Virginia Tech 5-6, 3-4 ACC
- Series: Virginia Tech leads 51-37-5
- Last meeting: Hokies won 38-0 in Charlottesville last year
- Line: Virginia Tech by 10
When Virginia Tech passes
After a humbling week, Marcus Davis had one of his best games this season, making five catches for 104 yards and a touchdown in the second half of the win against Boston College last week. The senior looked renewed after being called out for his lack of effort on blocking the previous week and gave Logan Thomas a big-play target that the Hokies lack when he’s not on the field. Thomas was average at best against BC, completing less than 50 percent of his passes for the third time this year and being off target with even a few of the easy throws he had on screens and quick passes over the middle. He still threw for more than 200 yards for the ninth time this year and two touchdowns (plus, he snapped his six-game streak of throwing at least one interception), but he’ll need to be more accurate this week for Tech to thrive. The o-line didn’t allow a sack last week for the first time this year. Thomas did face plenty of pressure, though.
The Cavaliers’ secondary had a stretch this year against — against Maryland, Wake Forest and N.C. State — where it shut down the opposing teams’ passing game. That’s fallen apart in the last two games, though. Miami only threw for 197 yards, but it had four passing touchdowns. Last Thursday, North Carolina torched UVa for 319 yards and three touchdowns. The 22 touchdowns the Cavs have given up in the air are tied for most in the league. UVa starts three sophomores and a freshman in the secondary, led by cornerback Demetrius Nicholson, who has 51 tackles and a team-best 13 pass breakups. But the Cavaliers haven’t been a ball-hawking group. UVa has only four interceptions this year, tied with Maryland for fewest in the ACC. The Cavs’ 1.27 sacks per game rank 102nd nationally.
Edge: Virginia Tech
When Virginia Tech runs
Tony Gregory and J.C. Coleman continue to get the lion’s share of carries. Gregory had 14 for 69 yards at BC and Coleman had 12 for 48. But it was Martin Scales who provided a boost off the bench, getting some tough-yardage runs on third-and-short. He got the ball in four of those situations and converted four first downs, including a clutch run in overtime when he was hit behind the line. The tailbacks averaged 4.36 yards per carry last week. Michael Holmes could get some looks this week too, now that he’s better from a thigh bruise. It takes some of the load off of Thomas, who ran it 13 times (mostly on scrambles) for 7 yards and a touchdown last week. It’s an unusual running dynamic for Tech. The Hokies haven’t had a leading rusher finish with fewer than 600 yards since Vaughn Hebron had 592 yards in 1992. Coleman leads the way this year with 450 yards, eight yards ahead of Thomas.
The Cavaliers are allowing 142.2 yards per game on the ground, although it has been and up-and-down effort. During its hot three-game stretch, UVa held Maryland to negative 2 rushing yards, Wake Forest 105 and N.C. State 19. Then Miami ran for 233 yards. But the Cavaliers did a good job of bottling up UNC’s Giovani Bernard in the Thursday night game, holding the ACC Player of the Year candidate to 57 yards on 15 carries. Take away a 461-yard rushing day by Georgia Tech’s triple option earlier this year, and UVa is allowing 110.4 yards per game on the ground. So it’s tough to tell which group shows up. Linebacker Steve Greer is a magnet to the ball, his 103 tackles being third-most in the ACC. Fellow linebacker La’Roy Reynolds (75 tackles, 6 TFLs) is a play-maker too. UVa’s line, which has two senior starters and two juniors, is led by end Jake Snyder (40 tackles, 5 TFL).
When Virginia passes
UVa will use both Michael Rocco and Alabama transfer Phillip Sims at quarterback, rotating the two in and out of the game with not much rhyme or reason. (Rocco completed 18 straight passes against Miami and still was rotated out of the game.) Rocco has been slightly more efficient of the two, completing 62 percent of his passes for 1,740 yards, 12 touchdowns and nine interceptions. Sims is completing 56.6 percent of his passes for 1,253 yards, nine touchdowns and four interceptions. Against Miami, the duo combined for 388 passing yards and four touchdowns. Like last year, the Cavaliers use running back Perry Jones liberally in the passing game. He leads the team with 46 catches for 378 yards. Receivers Darius Jennings (45 catches, 545 yards, 5 TD) and Dominique Terrell (35 catches, 448 yards) have been solid, but tight end Jake McGee (27 catches, 366 yards, 5 TD) is probably the biggest threat, particularly in the red zone. UVa has allowed 23 sacks this year, ranking 77th nationally. Right tackle Morgan Moses (leg) is listed as probable.
The Cavs will need him to be on his game to hold off a Hokies pass rush that has thrived the last few weeks. Tech has 22 sacks in the last five games, giving it 30 this year (19th nationally). That included seven sacks last week against BC, the team’s most in a game since 2006. End James Gayle had two sacks on Moses last year and, given Moses’ injury situation, has to be licking his chops this time around. But the Hokies’ linebackers have been especially active in the pass rush, with 5.5 sacks the last two games from Bruce Taylor, Jack Tyler and Alonzo Tweedy, many of which have come on blitzes. Expect the Hokies to continue to bring the house, putting their corners on an island. Kyle Fuller finally appears to be healthy at corner. Antone Exum on the other side is starting to establish himself. If Tech gets all those factors going, it could be a tough afternoon for UVa’s passing game.
Edge: Virginia Tech
When Virginia runs
The Cavaliers haven’t established the run a whole lot this year either, averaging 137.4 yards per game, 89th nationally. Kevin Parks leads the team with 713 yards and five touchdowns, averaging 4.7 yards per carry. Jones has been less effective as a ballcarrier, with 445 yards, two touchdowns and a 3.4-yard average. Virginia has had four games this year (Penn State, Georgia Tech, Wake Forest and Miami) in which it failed to get to the 100-yard mark. The one game in which the Cavaliers ran it from beginning to end, though, was against N.C. State, when they ran 48 times for 248 yards and two scores. Moses and Oday Aboushi are bookend tackles, but the interior line hasn’t been as strong as UVa had hoped, making it tough for the backs to run with any consistency.
Virginia Tech took a step back in its rush defense last week (although anything would have been a step back from the negative 15 yards it held Florida State to the previous week). Boston College’s feeble rushing attack finished with 167 yards. Still, it took the Eagles 45 carries to do so, meaning a 3.7-yard average. That’s not as low as Tech would like it, but it’s not far off. Defensive tackle Derrick Hopkins has been key to the Hokies’ run-stopping efforts. He had five tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss last week. Linebackers Tyler, Taylor and Tweedy combined for 26 tackles against the Eagles, their most active game yet, made possible by the line freeing them up to make plays. Since the UNC debacle, the Hokies are allowing 93.2 yards per game on the ground.
Edge: Virginia Tech
Demitri Knowles gave Virginia Tech the lift it needed to start the second half last week with a 75-yard kickoff return that set up a Thomas touchdown. He’s had three kickoffs this year that have gone for 50 yards or more and ranks 11th nationally in kick return with a 29.3-yard average. Kyshoen Jarrett‘s punt return average is still ninth nationally (13.89 avg.). Kicker Cody Journell came up with a huge kick last week, sneaking a 41-yarder inside the left upright to tie the game (Trey Gresh had a heck of a hold to make it happen too). After a strong game against FSU, punter A.J. Hughes took a step back at BC, with a 39.6-yard average on seven kicks. The Hokies are 10th in the ACC in net punting and gave up a long return last week. The kickoffs were a struggle at first with Michael Branthover resuming those duties, but the last one, a high, deep kick that allowed the Hokies to make a tackle at the 17-yard line, was what Tech has been looking for.
The Cavaliers have been pretty mediocre on special teams — and that’s being nice. Khalek Shepherd is averaging 22.3 yards per kick return, which is probably the highlight of the group. He hasn’t been as good on punt returns (3.2 avg.), where UVa ranks 112th nationally. Punter Alec Vozenilek has a 40.9-yard average, which is fourth in the ACC. But kickers Drew Jarrett and Ian Frye are a combined 11-for-17 on field goals this year. UVa’s coverage teams have been pretty bad. The Cavaliers rank 90th nationally in covering punts (9.72-yard avg.) and dead last in covering kickoffs (28.11-yard avg.).
Edge: Virginia Tech
Frank Beamer has owned the series since Mike London took over as head coach at UVa, with Tech winning 37-7 and 38-0 the last two years. Then again, Beamer and Virginia Tech are experiencing their worst season since 1992. Still, defensive coordinator Bud Foster seems to have his defense playing at an extremely high level right now, about what Hokies fans expected coming into the season. London and Co. pulled a rabbit out of the hat a few weeks ago, stunning N.C. State with an utterly dominating performance. They followed it up with an impressive shootout win against Miami before a flat performance against North Carolina in the team’s first home Thursday night game in six years. Who knows if he and his staff can get the good Cavaliers to show up for this one?
Edge: Virginia Tech
Despite the way the edges broke down, I think the game is closer than what that would indicate, especially since Virginia Tech hasn’t been able to put together too many good performances in a row (the Hokies haven’t beaten two FBS teams in a row all season). What I think this game comes down to is Virginia’s offensive line and how it can handle the Hokies’ revved up pass rush. Tech has made things rough for teams that haven’t protected the quarterback very well the last few weeks and figures to continue to roll the dice with its blitzes, a tactic that worked pretty well last year against the Cavaliers. If Moses can go and has the same effectiveness, it gives UVa a better chance. If he can’t or is clearly less than 100 percent, it could be a long day.
But more than that, Tech seems to be a different team at home, where it is 4-1, with the only loss being probably one of its better games this season, a 28-22 loss to Florida State. I don’t envision a score like the last few years, where the Hokies were overwhelmingly the better team on the field. UVa might not be great this year, but Tech, as I’ve mentioned several times, has had its most struggles in two decades this season. I’m curious to see what the Cavaliers have left in the tank now that a bowl trip is out of the picture. The Hokies still have that to play for. Tech has won eight straight in the series and 12 of 13. That streak will end someday, but I don’t envision a 4-7 Virginia team being the one to do it, even against a Hokies squad with so many question marks.
Prediction: Virginia Tech 26, Virginia 17