Only one more day until the battle for the Commonwealth Cup takes place. If you missed my feature story on Hokies linebacker Jack Tyler earlier today, you can get to it here.
As usual, here’s a breakdown of the matchups between the Hokies and Cavaliers …
Virginia Tech at Virginia
- Where: Scott Stadium, Charlottesville (61,500)
- When: 3:32 p.m., Saturday
- TV: ESPNU
- Records: Virginia (2-9, 0-7 ACC), Virginia Tech (7-4, 4-3 ACC)
- Series: Virginia Tech leads 52-37-5
- Last meeting: Hokies won 17-14 in Blacksburg last year
- Line: Virginia Tech by 13
When Virginia Tech passes
You never know what you’re going to get from this group. Even though the Hokies have lost two of their last three, quarterback Logan Thomas has been pretty good in that stretch, going 68-for-103 (66%) for 967 yards, six touchdowns and two interceptions. That includes two touchdown passes in each game to give him 15 this year to 12 picks. Although Josh Stanford went off for two straight weeks against Boston College and Miami, Willie Byrn remains the Hokies most-reliable receiving threat. He’s caught four or more passes in each of the last seven games, the only Tech receiver to do so. He was the only receiver to post more than two catches against Maryland, a game in which the Hokies’ receivers had trouble creating separation. Tech’s pass blocking was at its worst against the Terrapins, who had seven sacks. That’s the most the Hokies had allowed since the Orange Bowl against Stanford in 2011. Not all of it last week was on the line — Thomas held it for too long on a few occasions — but a lot of it was due to poor pass blocking.
The Hokies will have their hands full with Virginia’s defensive line. Six-foot-7 tackle Brent Urban (9.5 TFLs) is back from injury to join ends Eli Harold (12 TFLs, 5.5 sacks) and Jake Snyder (6.5 TFLs) on a formidable front. In the four games Urban missed, the Cavaliers gave up 472 yards or more three times. He had two tackles for a loss in last week’s Miami loss, in which UVa only gave up 304 yards. Virginia’s secondary will be without a big piece for the first half, with safety Anthony Harris serving a two-quarter suspension for his targeting ejection against the Hurricanes. Harris leads the country with eight interceptions, which are four more than UVa had as a team in 2012 and are the most by a Cavalier since Ronde Barber led the ACC with eight in 1994. Virginia ranks 80th nationally in passing yards allowed (215.1 ypg) and has been susceptible on the back end of late, allowing 863 yards and seven touchdowns through the air in the last three weeks. If the Hokies can protect Thomas — a big if — there’s yardage to be had.
Edge: Virginia Tech
When Virginia Tech runs
Whatever progress on the ground seemed to be made in the Miami game was lost the Hokies’ last time out against Maryland. Tech reverted to its old ways, running for only 54 yards in the overtime loss. Running back Trey Edmunds had 16 carries for 61 yards (a 3.8-yard average), but Maryland all but eliminated the Hokies’ read option game with Thomas, who, even when discounting all the sack yardage, gained only 27 yards on runs. It was the fifth time this year that Virginia Tech failed to rush for even 60 yards in a game. It’s no wonder then that the Hokies’ run game ranks 111th nationally, averaging 117.1 yards per game and a meager 3.1 yards per carry, close to the worst mark Tech has had under Frank Beamer. Then again, this team is only a few weeks removed from a 183-yard, four-touchdown effort against Miami, when blocking from the line, tight ends, receivers and fullbacks was at its best. Those same things could come together in this contest, although that hasn’t been the case most of the year.
The Cavaliers have been hit and miss at stopping the run this year. Three times they’ve held opponents to 100 yards or fewer (Pittsburgh had 8 rushing yards in a game in September). But UVa has also been gashed up front at times. The usual suspects put up big numbers against the Cavaliers (Georgia Tech ran for 395 yards and Clemson 175, both scoring five touchdowns, although Urban missed both of those games), but Duke and North Carolina both ran for 180 yards or more as well. The Cavaliers have some talented linebackers. Henry Coley leads the team with 85 tackles, adding 8.5 tackles for a loss. Daquan Romero is second on the team with 80 tackles. Still, UVa has allowed an ACC-worst 28 rushing touchdowns this year and 174.7 yards per game, which ranks 11th in the league. Against a more formidable rushing attack, that could be a problem. But Tech hasn’t run the ball with any kind of consistency to think that it will be able to do so Saturday, even against a suspect run defense like UVa’s.
When Virginia passes
The Cavaliers throw it a lot but not very effectively. Virginia’s 5.1 yards per attempt is dead last of 125 FBS schools. Starter David Watford has thrown eight touchdowns and 15 interceptions, averaging 189.1 yards per game, part of the reason the Cavaliers are considering using backup Greyson Lambert if an opportunity presents itself. Lambert has thrown for 286 yards and a touchdown this year, although all in mop-up duty. Whoever has been in the game lately hasn’t done great. UVa has two touchdown passes and seven interceptions in the last three games. Nobody on UVa is averaging more than 39.6 receiving yards per game (emerging 6-foot-3 freshman Keeon Johnson, who has played in only seven games, leads the way). Receiver Darius Jennings leads the team with three touchdowns and tight end Jake McGee has a team-high 39 receptions, hardly fearsome stats. The line has been average at pass blocking, giving up 21 sacks this year (58th nationally).
The Hokies will go with their young cornerbacks once again, with Kyle Fuller (core muscle surgery) and Antone Exum (ankle) out with injuries. Kendall Fuller and Brandon Facyson have played well beyond their years, however, combining for 10 interceptions this year. Even with the two seniors injured for most of the year — they’ve played two snaps together — the Hokies still rank fifth nationally in pass defense (164.9 ypg). That wouldn’t be possible without a pass rush, and Virginia Tech’s 34 sacks are tied for the seventh most in the country. They’ve had three in each of the last two games, reaching that number six times this season. The Hokies’ starting front four of James Gayle, J.R. Collins, Luther Maddy and Derrick Hopkins has combined for 36 tackles for a loss and 21.5 sacks. And that’s before you factor in reserve end Dadi Nicolas (7 TFLs, 4 sacks). It’s a relentless, deep group.
Edge: Virginia Tech
When Virginia runs
Running back Kevin Parks is on the verge of a 1,000-yard season, needing 74 yards to reach the mark. The senior is averaging 4.4 yards per carry and has 11 touchdowns, one of the few bright spots for the Virginia offense. The Cavaliers are coming off one of their better rushing efforts of the year, however, a 243-yard, two-touchdown game at Miami (although who hasn’t run wild on the Hurricanes lately?). Overall, UVa’s rushing attack still ranks 78th nationally (160.9 ypg). After some early-season shuffling, the Cavaliers have settled their offensive line. Morgan Moses has been steady as a left tackle and Luke Bowanko a solid center. The right side of the line is made up of freshman tackle Eric Smith and sophomore guard Jay Whitmore, who have had their ups and downs. Watford isn’t a running quarterback, per se, but he’s still a threat to take off on the ground. Taking out the negative runs (many of which are sacks), he has 335 yards gained and three touchdowns this season.
Containing Watford will be one of the keys for the Hokies’ defense, which was burned for 122 rushing yards, mostly on scrambles, by Maryland quarterback C.J. Brown the last time it was on the field. That included a short run of a busted play in overtime that ended up being the game-winner. Other than Brown, the Terps ran for 63 yards, so it’s not like Tech’s run defense fared that much differently than it has all year. The Hokies are still ranked eighth nationally in rushing defense (103.3 ypg). However, two of their worst performances this season have been in the last three games. Boston College and rising Heisman contender Andre Williams ran for 196 yards. Maryland had 184. But on the whole, linebackers Jack Tyler (89 tackles, 9 TFL) and Tariq Edwards (58 tackles, 9 TFL) and the Hokies’ defensive front have done a solid job of limiting opposing teams’ rushing attacks. They’ve held five opponents to 100 rushing yards or fewer this season.
Edge: Virginia Tech
The Hokies’ kicking game isn’t a mystery anymore. That’s not to say it’s solved. Freshman walk-on Eric Kristensen will handle field goals from 42 and in again this week, while Michael Branthover will handle longer attempts. Kristensen, who didn’t join the team until late September after a tryout, went 1-for-2 after replacing the dismissed Cody Journell against Maryland, missing his first from 34 but making from 31 in overtime. A.J. Hughes is second in the league with a 44.5-yard punting average. Tech’s return games are still dormant, and their coverage teams continue to let them down. Beamer can complain about a missed block in the back against Maryland all he wants, but it doesn’t change the fact that the Terps returned a punt for a touchdown, the second one Tech has allowed this year. That’s its most since allowing three in 2008.
Alec Vozenilek pulls double duty at Virginia as the punter (41.4 avg.) and kicker (10-for-13). He hasn’t been outstanding, but he’s been steady, certainly more than the Hokies’ kickers, who are 11-for-21. Dominique Terrell has been OK on punt returns, averaging 9.3 yards, although the Cavaliers have struggled on kickoff returns (19.0 avg., 103rd nationally). The Cavaliers have been pedestrian at covering punts and kicks, although they haven’t allowed a touchdown on either. That’s more than Virginia Tech, which has allowed three, can say.
In trying to find an edge here, one only has to look back to last year’s game, when Virginia’s Mike London inexplicably let the clock run down in a tie game without using his final timeouts, allowing the Hokies to kick the game-winning field goal as time expired. This year has been more of the same, with curious clock management and fourth-down calls — the very things, it seemed, Tom O’Brien was brought onto the staff to help London avoid. That’s not to say Beamer and Co. are immune to head-scratching moments, but they seem fewer. Of the coordinators in the game, Bud Foster‘s the only one to have been at his school for more than a full year, and it shows. His group is playing better than any of the other three right now, giving the Hokies a sizable advantage.
Edge: Virginia Tech
The 13-point line seems big, especially for a Virginia Tech team that’s lost as double-digit favorites at home to both Duke and Maryland. So while I do think the Hokies are the better team — which isn’t much of a stretch, considering UVa has yet to win an ACC game, has lost eight straight and could suffer its first 10-loss season since 1975 — I don’t think it’s as big of a chasm as the 38-0 outcome two years ago in Charlottesville.
That’s mostly because you never quite know what you’re going to get from this Virginia Tech offense. It could come out hitting on all cylinders like it did a few weeks back at Miami, or it could sputter from the start and never recover, like it has numerous times this year, even in a few wins. The Hokies’ unsure kicking game and coverage struggles are more reasons to think this will be closer than most think, but in the end, I don’t see this Virginia offense doing enough against Foster’s crew to win this game. I think the Hokies win by a little more than a touchdown, making it 10 straight in the series and 14 of 15. Whether that’s enough for them to get to the ACC championship game is out of their hands.
Prediction: Virginia Tech 24, Virginia 13