By Jeff White
BLACKSBURG — On a cold, blustery afternoon in Southwest Virginia, UVa’s football team closed a trying season on a familiar note.
It has become a rite of autumn for Virginia Tech to beat its arch-rival in this sport, and the regular-season finale showed that the gap between the state’s ACC programs remains immense.
The 13th-ranked Hokies, held scoreless and without a first down for the first quarter, battered the Cavaliers thereafter. Only a late touchdown kept Virginia from getting shut out for the first time in four years as Tech romped 37-7 on Saturday before a sellout crowd of 66,233 at Lane Stadium.
Al Groh went 1-8 against the Hokies as UVa’s head coach. His successor, Mike London, is now 0-1, and he readily acknowledges Tech’s dominance in the series.
The win was the Hokies’ seventh straight over the Wahoos and 11th in the teams’ past 12 meetings.
“They’re the measuring stick right now,” said London, who was an assistant coach on the Virginia team that whipped the Hokies at Scott Stadium in 2003. “You’re humbled by the fact that that’s where you gotta go. But that’s what I aspire for our program to be: a team that wins games and consistently competes for championships.”
Tech (8-0, 10-2) closed the regular season with 10 consecutive victories and will represent the Coastal Division against Atlantic Division winner Florida State in next weekend’s ACC championship game at Charlotte, N.C.
Virginia finished 1-7 in ACC play and 4-8 overall — its third straight losing season and fourth in five years. The ‘Hoos have lost 13 consecutive games in November since whipping ACC rival Miami 48-0 at the Orange Bowl in 2007.
Sunday marks the start of a period during which college coaches can contact recruits. London knows that he must raise the talent level in UVa’s program, so don’t expect to find him watching NFL games as the weekend ends.
“My second season has just started,” London said. “It’s to get in the homes and get in the faces of those young men that we just talked about that have opportunities here, and continue to talk about the things that this school can offer them.
“I’ll be working tirelessly to make sure I attract the type of young men that can help us win on the field also.”
The 92nd game in a rivalry that dates to 1895 started inauspiciously for the Cavaliers. Tech’s Jayron Hosley returned the opening kickoff 50 yards to the UVa 49. After going out of bounds, he ran into and then bounced off Virginia senior Isaac Cain, who was watching the play from the sideline and had raised his arms as Hosley approached.
Cain was called for a personal foul — the first of the Cavaliers’ five penalties Saturday — and Tech’s drive started at the 34. Virginia’s defense stiffened, however, and the first of the Hokies’ three first-quarter three-and-outs followed.
The Cavaliers’ offense fared much better on its first possession, picking up three first downs — the first on a 19-yard pass from senior quarterback Marc Verica to senior tailback Keith Payne, the second on Verica’s 13-yard completion to sophomore tailback Perry Jones, the third on a 3-yard run by junior fullback Terence Fells-Danzer.
On third-and-5 from Tech’s 27, Verica scrambled for a 3-yard gain. London hasn’t shied away from bold moves this season, and he kept his offense on the field on fourth down. But a delay-of-game penalty foiled that plan, and Chris Hinkebein’s 46-yard field-goal attempt sailed well right of the goalposts.
Virginia’s first drive was notable not only for that blown opportunity. The 19-yard completion to Payne turned out to be the only one of the Cavaliers’ 12 third-down opportunities that they converted Saturday.
UVa went three-and-out on its second possession. Its third ended in disaster. On second-and-17 from Virginia’s 8, Verica threw a pass that was intended for Dontrelle Inman.
The ball didn’t come close to the senior wideout. It went to Tech safety Eddie Whitley, who returned the interception 19 yards to the Cavaliers’ 5. On the next play, Hokies tailback Ryan Williams bulled into the end zone for the first of his two touchdowns.
“It’s a turning point, particularly when the ball ends up on the 5-yard line,” London said of Verica’s 14th interception of the season. “Obviously it hurts, that momentum swing, and you can’t do things like that on the road, particularly playing here. So they capitalized on an errant throw, and we weren’t able to stop them or at least try to create a field-goal situation.
“That’s the going back and forth between where we want to be as a team and how much more we have to be mature and how much better we have to play to maybe create a field-goal situation and not give up six points, even though it’s on the 5-yard line.”
Offensive coordinator Bill Lazor said: “It was a tough place to turn it over. I know exactly what we were doing, and Marc was trying to throw the thing on time. He was obviously trying to throw it just to the right spot, and Dontrelle was open, and they just weren’t 100 percent together.”
Lazor said he would need to watch the videotape to know exactly what went wrong, but “I know the play well, and I know when it misses outside. It’s not like I’ve never seen that happen before. You just hope that it hits the dirt and not the safety or whoever caught it.”
The Hokies didn’t turn the ball over Saturday. Still, the game didn’t get away from the ‘Hoos until the second half. It was 7-0 early in the second quarter when UVa gambled on fourth-and-2 from its 45. Jimmy Howell lined up to punt. Instead of kicking, however, Howell caught Danny Aiken’s snap and threw a pass to tight end Colter Phillips, whom a swarm of Tech defenders stopped about six inches short of the first down.
Earlier in the season, Howell had thrown a touchdown pass to Trey Womack on a fake punt, and twice Virginia had turned fake field goals into TDs. But this trickery didn’t fool the Hokies, and they held on another pivotal play late in the first half.
After an 18-yard completion from Verica to Payne moved the ‘Hoos to the Tech 23, Jones ran for 7 yards. Payne then rushed for 2 yards, bringing up third-and-1 at Tech’s 14.
Virginia tried a quarterback sneak, but Tech stopped Verica for no gain. On fourth down, Verica handed off to the 6-3, 255-pound Payne, who came in leading the ACC with 14 rushing touchdowns. The Hokies stopped Payne, too, and then produced a drive that ended with Chris Hazley’s 40-yard field goal and sent them into the break leading 17-0.
The short-yardage runs failed, Lazor said, mainly because UVa blockers lost individual battles with Tech defenders.
“I think we know what we’re doing on those plays, so I think we’ll look at it and feel like we had the right plan,” Lazor said, “but when it comes down to those kind of battles, I have great confidence in our guys, and we told them way back in the spring when it’s third-and-1, or we’re on the goal line, we’re going to run the ball.
“So we expect to do that, and it’s always going to be that way. I’m not saying we’re never going to throw a play-action pass. Every once in a while we do that down there, but that’s part of what we talked when we first got here. We talked about being a physical offense. You might throw it more than you run it, but in my mind, in those critical situations, you ought to run the ball, and you ought to be able to get it.”
Virginia came in averaging 415.2 yards. Against a Tech defense that had been uncharacteristically weak against the run this season, the ‘Hoos rushed for only 70 yards. They passed for 221, with 50 coming after tailback David Wilson’s second TD gave Tech a 37-0 lead.
The Hokies, meanwhile, totaled 383 yards. That actually represented improvement for coordinator Jim Reid’s oft-maligned defense, which through the first 11 games had allowed an average of 397.3 yards. Still, that was small consolation for the Cavaliers.
In his final game at Lane Stadium, senior quarterback Tyrod Taylor torched Virginia one last time. Taylor completed 13 of 23 passes for 176 yards and 1 TD and several times eluded UVa defenders to keep plays alive.
Tech has three superlative tailbacks in Williams, Wilson and Darren Evans, and they combined for 177 yards and 4 TDs rushing.
Missed tackles were again a problem for Virginia, but London noted that Tech’s tailbacks have made a lot of defenses look bad.
“There’s going to be missed tackles in a game,” London said, “and what you try to do is limit those missed tackles, and particularly with their backs, you try to gang-tackle, you try to get as many guys as you can to the ball, because all three of them are very explosive.”
Junior cornerback Chase Minnifield said: “At the end of the day you’ve got to stop the run. That’s what they do best, and they beat us.”
After Tech went up 14-0 with 10:33 left in the second quarter, Lazor replaced Verica with true freshman Michael Rocco on the next series, which started at Virginia’s 20. On first down, Jones was tackled for a 4-yard loss. On second down, Rocco threw a pass that fell incomplete after nearly being intercepted. On third down, Jones lost 5 yards, and Howell came on to punt.
Verica returned on the next series, and Lazor stayed with him until the 4:47 mark of the fourth quarter, when redshirt freshman Ross Metheny took over. Metheny scrambled for a 7-yard gain on first down, then teamed with junior wideout Matt Snyder on a 34-yard completion.
The drive ended with a screen pass to Payne, who rumbled into the end zone to complete the 11-yard play and avert what would have been UVa’s first shutout defeat since a 17-0 loss to Tech in 2006.
“I think it was definitely a positive for our team to get a score and get some points on the board at the end,” said Metheny, who’s expected to compete with Rocco and true freshman Michael Strauss for the starting job in spring practice.
There were many positives in London’s first season, his players said, the team’s record notwithstanding.
“A foundation’s laid,” said Inman, who caught three passes for 65 yards in his final college game. “Everybody knows what to expect out of Coach. Coach will continue to be that leader he is, and once everybody buys in and refuses to lose, everything will just be set in place.”
Verica said: “Some people might have difficulty truly gauging the progress in the rebuilding of this program if they only measure it by wins and losses. But it truly transcends that. Especially with a coach’s first year, I think more than anything it’s about establishing a new culture that you want your players to conform to, and those surrounding your organization and the fans, and everyone who supports you. More than anything else, I think that’s the foundation that’s been laid this year.”
Starters who have eligibility remaining include Howell, Phillips, Jones, Minnifield, kicker Robert Randolph, wideout Kris Burd, offensive linemen Morgan Moses, Oday Aboushi, Anthony Mihota, Landon Bradley and Austin Pasztor, fullback Max Milien, defensive ends Zane Parr and Cam Johnson, defensive tackles Nick Jenkins and Matt Conrath, linebackers Ausar Walcott, LaRoy Reynolds and Steve Greer, and safeties Rodney McLeod and Corey Mosley.
But if the ‘Hoos are to again be competitive with the Hokies, London knows, he needs more than that. And so he plans to continue recruiting tirelessly.
“You try to entice young men and say, ‘Listen, you can come in and make a difference here,’ ” London said. “That’s the whole goal right now: to close the gap in recruiting, to close the gap on the field, because [the Hokies have] been very good for a long, long time. But that’s what I’m here for. That’s why there’s change.
“This is a total transformation of trying to get things going and moving in a direction that people that are Cavalier fans can be proud of.”