By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — It was always going to be a big game for the UVa football team, which did not, coming into the season, need to reminded that Virginia Tech has dominated the series over the past decade.
Still, in late August few would have predicted that the 93rd football game between these schools would have such major implications, inside the state and out. The Cavaliers, after all, were picked to finished fifth in the ACC’s Coastal Division, four spots below the Hokies.
So much for that. Media prognosticators — and many others in the college football world — underestimated the talent, resolve and toughness of second-year coach Mike London’s Cavaliers, who have won four games in a row and enter their regular-season finale as the Coastal’s second-place team.
At 3:30 p.m. Saturday, 24th-ranked UVa (5-2, 8-3) meets the Coastal leader, sixth-ranked Virginia Tech (6-1, 10-1), on Senior Day at sold-out Scott Stadium.
To the winner goes the Commonwealth Cup, which has resided in Blacksburg since Nov. 27, 2004, when the Hokies beat the Wahoos 24-10 at Lane Stadium. Equally important, the winner will represent the Coastal against Atlantic Division champion Clemson in the ACC title game Dec. 3 in Charlotte, N.C.
“This is why you play college football,” said fifth-year senior Kris Burd, UVa’s top wide receiver.
Frank Beamer’s Hokies are used to being in this position. They’ve won three of the past four ACC titles.
“They’re a good team,” London told reporters Monday at John Paul Jones Arena. “There’s a reason why they’ve been the ACC champions. They have players that have phenomenal talent. They’re in a position where they can back up what they’ve talked about, what they’ve done.”
The ‘Hoos, by contrast, are headed to a bowl for the first time since 2007. Virginia finished 5-7 in 2008, 3-9 in 2009 (its final season under Al Groh), and 4-8 last year.
“Us fifth-year seniors, we talk a lot amongst ourselves about the legacy we want to leave behind and being that class that turned the UVa football program back around and brought them back to the light that we should be in,” Burd said.
“It’s something that we think about and talk about, just the legacy and how we want to be remembered. We have a lot of big wins this season, but this game is really the game that really counts. To get us to an ACC championship game and just go out there and beat Tech, that’s something that hasn’t been done around here in a long time. It will be something that will be remembered and be just an echoing part of history.”
In last year’s regular-season finale, Tech routed Virginia 37-7 in Blacksburg, and the gulf between the state’s ACC programs seemed enormous. A year later, however, UVa is again relevant in the ACC, and London’s relentless recruiting efforts in the state appear to be paying dividends.
The Cavaliers’ first-year class is loaded with players who grew up in this state, including cornerback Demetrious “Tra” Nicholson, quarterback David Watford, tailback Clifton Richardson, safeties Anthony Harris and Kameron Mack, defensive end Thompson Brown and linebacker Daquan Romero, and more are on the way.
Beamer said he believes it’s good “for the two teams in the state of Virginia to be playing for the Coastal championship. I’ve always believed that if Virginia and us did a good job of keeping in-state players here in state, that both of us could have success. And I think this game is a perfect example of that.”
The Hokies have won seven straight in the series and 11 of the teams’ past 12 meetings.
“They’ve had our number here for a lot of years,” Burd said, “and we feel like this year is the year to get ’em.”
Its record notwithstanding, this Tech team has been less dominant than some of its recent predecessors. The Hokies’ six-game winning streak includes a three-point victory over ACC rival Miami, a four-point victory over Duke and a three-point victory over North Carolina.
Still, Tech is loaded with playmakers, especially on an offense that features All-America candidate David Wilson at tailback, redshirt sophomore Logan Thomas at quarterback and seniors Jarrett Boykin and Danny Coale at wideout.
On defense, Tech ranks second in the ACC statistically behind Florida State, which UVa beat 14-13 in Tallahassee last week, in the major categories. The Cavaliers are averaging 177.6 yards rushing per game, and the Hokies are allowing 104.9, so something will have to give Saturday.
“I’m quite sure that their game plan is to do what they’ve been doing all along, because it’s been successful for them,” London said. “We played a very good rush defense last week [at FSU], and we’re going to play another very good rush defense this week.
“I think the biggest thing is to continue to do the things that have brought us to this point, and that is to try to run the ball. If you can’t run the ball, then you have to find creative ways to move the chains. We’ll see how it all turns out.”
Like the 6-6, 254-pound Thomas, UVa’s starting quarterback is from Lynchburg, and they attend the same church there. At 6-3, 225 pounds, sophomore Michael Rocco isn’t nearly as big as Thomas, but the former Liberty Christian Academy star has elevated his performance over the past month.
For the season, Rocco has completed 180 of 298 passes (60.4 percent) for 2,148 yards and 11 touchdowns, with nine interceptions. In his past four games — all UVa victories — Rocco has thrown seven TD passes and one pick.
To Beamer, it “all starts with your quarterback, and I think Rocco has really meant a lot to that football team. But they’ve got good players around him … I don’t think there’s any question they’ve done a good coaching job with these guys. They do it the right way.”
Rocco is a nephew of Liberty University coach Danny Rocco, who was a UVa assistant in 2003. Michael Rocco was in the stands at Scott Stadium that fall when Virginia and quarterback Matt Schaub whipped Tech 35-21.
“The rivalry is something special and something to be proud about,” Rocco said.
Rocco, who appeared in six games as a true freshman last year, has started every game this fall. In each of Virginia’s first seven games, however, Rocco split time, to varying degrees, with Watford.
London and offensive coordinator Bill Lazor scrapped the QB rotation after Virginia’s Oct. 22 loss to NC State. Coincidentally or not, Rocco has flourished since then.
Would his production have increased if he were still sharing the job with Watford?
“I really can’t tell you,” Rocco said. “I would hope that it would have had the same success, but I can’t tell you for sure. I’m glad it happened this way, and I’m happy that we’ve got a four-game winning streak going on. We’re really just focused on this week and trying to get this ‘W.’ Our team is confident right now, and that’s one of the key aspects of going into a big game and having success.”
In its wins over Indiana, Idaho, Georgia Tech, Miami and Florida State, UVa was the stronger team in the decisive final minutes. Evan Marcus, who took over as strength-and-conditioning coach in January, deserves credit for the team’s late-game toughness, London’s players say.
Marcus “talks all the time about being 60-minute men,” junior offensive tackle Oday Aboushi said. “Whatever team you play or whatever team we’re up against, it’s going to be a battle for 60 minutes.”
Burd said: “Every time we’re in there working, [Marcus] makes sure that we keep a goal in mind so we don’t just lull ourselves into just working out. We’re working to compete for championships.”
A victory Saturday would put the Cavaliers in position to win the ACC championship. Little is likely to come easily against the Hokies, London knows, but he and his staff have worked to build a team that won’t be fazed by anything that occurs on game day.
“The game happens,” London said. “[Opponents] do something well, you have to react. Bad things happen in the game. You have to react. Good things happen in the game, and you’ve got to maintain your composure and continue to act and react. I think it’s boiled down to more about that and the improvement of this team than one person. I don’t know if we have a team of superstars. I don’t think we have a team of superstars. We’ve got a bunch of guys that have a role. They play their role. They embrace their role. When the team wins, everyone gets credit for the win.”