CHARLOTTESVILLE—In nature, species adapt to survive. In the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Coastal Division, Virginia and Virginia Tech did the same thing this football season. It’s why they’re the last two teams standing in the chaotic-as-ever half of the conference.
For No. 23 Virginia Tech, adaption meant reinventing itself “A.D.”–after a 45–10 home loss to Duke that left many questioning if the Hokies could even fight to keep a .500 record.
For Virginia, adaptation meant adjusting to life without a pair of star defensive backs, injuries that depleted what was expected to be one of the league’s top defenses.
Now, both teams enter Friday’s matchup for the division title with identical records (8–3 overall, 5–2 ACC) and on matching three-game win streaks.
The streak most people will focus on is Tech’s 15 straight wins over Virginia, but the chance to win the Coastal crown overshadows that for the players this week.
“That’s the fun part about it, November football. This is what you dream about,” said Tech sophomore linebacker Dax Hollifield. “These are the games you remember the most–we beat a rival to go to Charlotte to play Clemson. That’s the high stakes that you want and you dream about when you’re a little kid.”
Two months ago, it looked as if the Hokies had no shot at reaching this point. The dismantling by Duke seemed to signal this program–long one of the nation’s most consistently successful–was on the downslide.
But fourth-year coach Justin Fuente did the thing that college football coaches are often loath to do; he changed things up. Fuente made a switch at quarterback, benching senior Ryan Willis and turning to sophomore Hendon Hooker.
He hired former Minnesota coach Jerry Kill as a special assistant to get a fresh set of eyes on the program.
And he shifted the identity of his football team. Tech became the embodiment of complementary football, possessing the ball on offense to help the defense better control games.
Fourth-year Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “I think Virginia Tech’s brand has become stronger this year as they played, and their identity has become clearer of how their offense, defense and special teams fit together.”
Since losing to Duke, the Hokies have won six of seven games. Their only loss was 21–20 on the road at Notre Dame, currently ranked 15th in the nation, in a game Hooker sat out with an injury.
“I think the record speaks for itself,” Mendenhall said. “They just win when he’s playing quarterback.”
If an embarrassing loss prompted Tech to change, it was a rash of injuries in the defensive secondary that spurred Virginia’s adjustments.
The Cavaliers went into the season as the preseason favorite to win the Coastal because of star quarterback Bryce Perkins and a defense that looked as if it had a chance to be the league’s best.
But injuries in the defensive backfield started piling up even before the season began when cornerback Darrius Bratton, a likely starter, suffered a season-ending knee injury. The big blow came on Oct. 11, during Virginia’s road loss at Miami. All-America cornerback Bryce Hall–who had returned for his senior season despite being a highly regarded NFL prospect–had his year ended by an ankle injury.
The hits kept coming. Safeties Brenton Nelson and Antonio Clary suffered season-ending injuries, and cornerback Heskin Smith and safety Chris Moore also went down. Moore still is out but Smith started at corner against Liberty on Saturday.
De’Vante Cross , who has played corner and safety because of the injuries, moved back to safety with Smith in the lineup, intercepted two passes and was named ACC defensive back of the week.
Fuente said, despite all the changes in personnel, Virginia’s defensive plans have remained unaltered.