By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Around 12:45 p.m. Friday, on a warm fall day, the UVa football team ended its final walk-through of the season, and the players gathered around head coach Mike London.
As work on the new indoor practice facility continued nearby, London delivered a parting message, and then the players broke the huddle, as they have all week, with two words: “Beat Tech!”
Virginia (4-7, 2-5 ACC) closes the season Saturday afternoon against its biggest rival, Virginia Tech (5-6, 3-4), at Lane Stadium in Blacksburg, where the forecast calls for highs in the 30s. ESPNU will televise the noon game, whose winner will take (or retain) possession of the Commonwealth Cup.
The Hokies, as anyone who’s been paying attention knows, have won eight straight over the Cavaliers. This is only London’s third season as Virginia’s head man, but he’s well-versed in the series’ recent history. The Hokies have won 12 of the teams’ past 13 meetings.
“It is what it is,” London said Friday. “The facts are what they are.”
UVa center Luke Bowanko, a redshirt junior, noted Wednesday that “it hasn’t been much of a rivalry in recent years. But no one here on this team right now has lost to [Tech] eight years in a row, so that’s not necessarily the mindset we have right now.
“Obviously it’s on everyone’s mind that it hasn’t been much of a competition lately, and that’s our goal, to go out there and win a football game. But I don’t think the history of it necessarily is making a huge impact on preparation.”
On the ACC coaches’ teleconference Wednesday, Virginia Tech’s Frank Beamer voiced a similar sentiment. Beamer said the “only game in this series that matters right now is the one coming up Saturday.”
The Cavaliers’ hopes of becoming bowl-eligible were dashed Nov. 15, when North Carolina defeated them 37-13 at Scott Stadium. Two days later, in Chestnut Hill, Mass., the Hokies won an elimination game of sorts, beating Boston College in overtime. Tech now must defeat Virginia to become bowl-eligible for the 20th straight season.
The `Hoos do not lack motivation either. A victory Saturday “would send us into the offseason on a high note,” junior quarterback Michael Rocco said. “We’re treating it like our bowl game.”
With postseason no longer an option for them, the Cavaliers would love to spoil Tech’s season. Even more satisfying for UVa, though, would be sending its seniors out with a victory.
“For some of them,” London said, “this will be their last college game ever.”
That could also be true for Tech’s seniors. By Beamer’s standards, this has been an enormously disappointing season, and he acknowledged that players and coaches share the fans’ frustration. Still, the Hokies are “looking to the future,” Beamer said. “There is nothing we can do about the games that we lost.”
The Hokies haven’t lost to the `Hoos since 2003. London was one of UVa’s assistant coaches that season, as was Anthony Poindexter, who now oversees the Cavaliers’ safeties and special teams. Marques Hagans, now a graduate assistant at his alma mater, played wideout and returned punts for Virginia in `03.
For the Cavaliers to end their losing streak Saturday would be huge, junior defensive end Jake Snyder said, “not just for us on the team, but as far as recruiting goes and as far as the perception [of the program] inside the state goes. And we’ve had a negative image of us for the past 10 years or so, because we haven’t beaten them. They have been the best team in the state, and that’s something that we’re still looking to change.”
The `Hoos haven’t won at Lane Stadium since 1998. The game may not draw a capacity crowd Saturday, given the Hokies’ struggles this season, but it will be the most hostile environment Virginia has played in this year.
“That’s one thing Tech does a great job with,” Snyder said. “Their fans are passionate, they’re loud, and they love football there, which is awesome. It’s always fun to go to a place like that. You think of going to Florida State last year.”
Virginia prevailed in Tallahassee last season. To do the same in Blacksburg on Saturday, the Cavaliers can’t let the crowd rattle them, especially when they have the ball.
Tech’s pass-rushers are “especially difficult at home with that crowd,” Bowanko said. “They have a great crowd down there, one of the best places to play in college football. Teams struggle to communicate their calls. Sometimes they’re not always on the same page.”
When the Hokies have the ball, UVa will be more concerned with quarterback Logan Thomas and split end Marcus Davis than with the crowd.
Thomas, a 6-6, 260-pound junior, can “beat you with his arm and his feet,” Virginia middle linebacker Steve Greer noted this week.
A 6-4, 232-pound senior, Davis has been mocked nationally for his half-hearted blocking, but he’s a sensational athlete who needs 142 yards to become the first player in Tech history to total 1,000 yards receiving in a season.
“There are just so many things that he does well that you marvel at,” London said.
After finishing 8-5 in 2011 — a season capped by a Chick-fil-A Bowl appearance — the `Hoos won their first two games this year. But a six-game losing streak followed, a skid fueled by Virginia’s special-teams breakdowns, propensity for turning the ball over and inability to consistently force turnovers.
Then came wins over ACC rivals NC State and Miami and, on ESPN’s Thursday night showcase, the deflating loss to UNC. This has not been the season London envisioned, but it’s difficult to overstate the positive effect a win over Tech would have on Virginia’s program.
The Cavaliers left Charlottesville by bus at 1:30 p.m. Friday and arrived at the team hotel in Roanoke about two hours later. The `Hoos won’t venture into Blacksburg until Saturday morning.
Their final walk-through of 2012, on the practice field behind the McCue Center and University Hall, began around noon Friday with a stretching period led by strength-and-conditioning coach Evan Marcus.
“Twenty-four hours now, fellas,” Marcus shouted. “Let’s make sure we finish what we started.”