CHARLOTTESVILLE – Six times this season, Virginia’s football players have trudged back into the home locker room at Scott Stadium victorious, only to be met – head-on – by a reminder of the program’s greatest shortcoming.
A clock in the entrance of the locker room continually counts down to the day of the annual rivalry game against Virginia Tech, a game the Hokies have won 15 straight times.
“If I’m being honest, I don’t notice it,” said senior linebacker Jordan Mack. “Honestly I’m just trying to hurry up and get my ankle taped. I really don’t look at it that much.”
Mack and most of his teammates may not stand around staring at the clock, but there’s no way to completely avoid the big red numbers ticking down, just like there’s no way to avoid talking about all that goes into Friday’s game against the No. 23 Hokies (8-3, 5-2 ACC) – the losing streak, last year’s painful overtime loss, and the fact that, since the preseason, the Cavaliers (8-3, 5-2) have let everyone know that beating Tech is among their chief goals.
“Acknowledge it, just brutal fact-wise,” said fourth-year coach Bronco Mendenhall. “Then say, ‘It’s 19 versus 19. Virginia Tech’s ‘19 team is playing the University of Virginia’s 19 team. Anything beyond that is interference and not relevant to me. It’s this year, this team, this week.”
When the ball is kicked off at noon Friday, Mendenhall wants his players to know that last year’s heartbreak doesn’t matter. The last 15 years of heartbreak don’t matter.
This year, these teams play this week for the ACC Coastal Division title. Both come in on three game win streaks, Virginia fueled by the re-emergence of star dual-threat quarterback Bryce Perkins and the Hokies riding the dominant-again defense of retiring coordinator Bud Foster.
Mendenhall’s program has made strides each season, going from a two-win horror show to bowl eligible in Year 2, to winning eight games and a bowl last year. The next logical step? A division title and the end of the Tech slump.
Both are on the line Friday.
“You always want to be better than [last year],” Mack said. “We have it pasted around our meeting rooms: ‘Be greater than, not equal to.’ So each and every single year we just work hard to improve from what the last class and the guys have built that came before us, build upon that each and every single year.”
Three keys for the Cavaliers
1) Ride Perkins: UVA has gotten back to letting Perkins be the show in recent weeks, and the result has been a three-game win streak. Perkins has thrown for 835 yards and six touchdowns, with no interceptions in that span. He’s also run for 248 yards and four scores in those games. The Cavaliers are 11-1 the last two seasons when Perkins scores a rushing touchdown.
2) Get after Hendon Hooker: Virginia Tech’s new quarterback is 6-0 as a starter and hasn’t thrown an interception in 110 pass attempts. Virginia has recorded 37 sacks this year, tied for eighth in the nation and second in the ACC. Getting after Hooker, containing him as a runner and pressuring him when he passes, will be critical Friday.
3) Get a big play from Joe Reed: Reed leads the ACC in kick return average and has taken two all the way back for touchdowns. Virginia Tech is tied for the league lead in kick coverage and isn’t likely to kick to Reed too often Friday. But as he showed last year, catching two long touchdown passes, Reed can make big plays in a number of ways. However he does it, UVA needs a lift from Reed on Friday.