By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Saturday at Scott Stadium, the University of Virginia football team will try to end nearly a decade of frustration.
The Commonwealth Cup is awarded annually to the winner of the UVa-Virginia Tech game, and from Nov. 29, 2003, to Nov. 27, 2004, its home was in this city, at the McCue Center.
Since then, however, the Cup has resided in Blacksburg. Starting with their 24-10 win over the Cavaliers at Lane Stadium in 2004, the Hokies have won nine straight in a series they lead 52-37-5.
“It’s been forever since we beat them,” UVa defensive tackle Brent Urban said, “and we really want this W.”
The teams’ 95th meeting starts at 3:30 p.m. Saturday. Virginia Tech (7-4, 4-3) still has an outside chance at representing the Coastal Division in the ACC championship game. For Virginia (2-9, 0-7), which has lost eight in a row since beating VMI 49-0 on Sept. 21, the season ends Saturday, win or lose. That only heightens the significance of this game for fourth-year coach Mike London and his players.
“I don’t think anything can wipe away nine losses, to be honest with you,” fullback Billy Skrobacz said, “but it would be a big win, I’ll say that.”
“We’re preparing like it’s our Super Bowl,” center Luke Bowanko said. “To us, if we win this game, it will kind of put a cherry on top of an otherwise down season.”
“It’s our last game, the last time to make a statement,” offensive tackle Morgan Moses said. “This is our bowl game.”
Skrobacz, Bowanko and Moses are among the seven seniors who have played for the Wahoos this season, along with Urban, defensive end Jake Snyder, safety Rijo Walker and wide receiver Tim Smith. A Senior Day ceremony will be held before the game.
“I’ve never been an overly emotional person, but I’m sure at some point I’ll kind of look around and think about that being my last opportunity in front of that crowd,” Bowanko said.
A three-year starter on the offensive line, Bowanko could have been speaking for his classmates when he talked about Saturday’s game.
“I get to play in front of the home crowd one more time against a team that we haven’t had a ton of success against,” Bowanko said, “and get a chance to send the season out on a high note and kind of turn it around and give the guys something to work on, to build on, going into the offseason.
“I’m optimistic, and I think we should have a very good chance to win the game.”
Statistically, at least, Virginia Tech’s offense hasn’t been much better than UVa’s this season. But on the other side of the ball, the Hokies have often dominated.
“This is probably the best defense we’ve faced all year,” Virginia offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild said.
Among ACC teams, Virginia Tech ranks No. 1 in total defense, No. 1 in rushing defense, No. 2 in pass defense and No. 2 in scoring defense. Standouts for veteran defensive coordinator Bud Foster include tackles Derrick Hopkins and Luther Maddy and ends James Gayle and J.R. Collins.
“This is one of the more impressive fronts that we’ve played all year,” Bowanko said. “We know we gotta play our best game to have a chance to win, and that’s what we’re preparing to do.”
Starting quarterback David Watford has been prone to interceptions in recent games, and his backup, redshirt freshman Greyson Lambert, may see action Saturday. No matter who’s at quarterback, however, Virginia probably needs another big game from tailback Kevin Parks if it is to upset the Hokies.
A redshirt junior from Salisbury, N.C., Parks is the ACC’s second-leading rusher (84.2 yards per game). He needs 74 yards in the finale to become the first Cavalier since Alvin Pearman (1,037) in 2004 to rush for 1,000.
“We’ve been talking about it, just about every day these past two weeks, trying to get him to 1,000,” Bowanko said. “Obviously I think our game plan kind of leans toward the fact that we need to rush for a lot of yards to have a chance to beat this team. So if you have a lot of success, it’ll be good for Kevin and good for the team.”
Fairchild said Parks has been really “inspiring to me, because he’s just a tough kid that works hard every day. Those guys, they like going to practice. They’re a pleasure to coach. He’s just really a neat guy, and I’m thankful I had a chance to coach him this year.
“If everybody had that type of heart, you’d have yourself a hell of a football team.”
Fairchild is in his first season at UVa. So are the team’s other coordinators, Jon Tenuta (defense) and Larry Lewis (special teams). Tenuta’s defense was without three of its best players — Urban and cornerbacks Demetrious Nicholson and Maurice Canady — for much of the regular season.
“When you’re missing certain pieces of the puzzle, you’ve got to go back to the simplistic aspects of [the defense],” Tenuta said, “and obviously we haven’t been able to pressure and do a lot of things that I really like to do, but you gotta do what your kids can do.”
Nicholson, a junior who went down with an injury in early October, won’t return until 2014, but Urban and Canady rejoined the lineup last weekend. That’s good news for a defense that has given up multiple big plays this season.
“When you have the Urbanator in there, you can do a lot of [stuff],” Tenuta said this week.
Unfortunately for the `Hoos, they’ll be without their best defensive back for the first half Saturday. Junior safety Anthony Harris, who leads the nation with eight interceptions, was called for targeting last weekend at Miami and so, under a rule that went into effect this season, must sit out the first half of UVa’s next game.
“I feel sorry for the young man in the aspect that I think it’s a bad rule,” Tenuta said, “but you can’t get into that part of it. But the football part of it is, that guy is the guy that runs the show for us. He knows everything, and it’s tough for us not to have him, to start with.”
“We’re going to miss [Harris] for sure,” Snyder said, “but it’s the next-man-up mentality, just like it has been all year, so we’ll have the next guy step in and see what they can do, and we’ll have Ant back for the second half.”
Comments made recently by Fairchild on a Richmond radio show rankled Tech assistant Shane Beamer, who complained loudly and publicly about them. Beamer’s father, of course, is the Hokies’ head coach. Tech’s players, meanwhile, have supplied UVa with plenty of bulletin-board material this week.
Come Saturday, London said, none of that will matter.
“You play the game on the field,” London said. “We have the utmost respect for Virginia Tech. I have the utmost respect for Coach [Frank] Beamer. He’s done a lot of good things and is one of the winningest coaches in college football. All the words back and forth don’t amount to anything that’s important. What’s important is playing well on the field.”
Moses remains convinced that the Cavaliers are “not far from winning, and that’s the thing that we have to get in our head, that we’re not far from winning. We’ve just got to cut down the mistakes that we have control of, and capitalize when our defense [forces] a turnover and put points on the board and be able to score in the red zone.”
Snyder, who like Skrobacz graduated from Deep Run High School, said he’s given considerable thought to what a victory over the Hokies would feel like.
“It’s always been in the back of my mind,” Snyder said. “I know my teammates are the same way. It’s something we think about here all year long, and we haven’t had a win [over Tech] in a long time.”
Canady said: “This is one of the reasons I came to UVa, to beat Virginia Tech. We’re not going to a bowl game, so we look at this like the Super Bowl. This is our Super Bowl.”