By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Coming off its bye week, the UVa football team had a clear mission: win its two remaining regular-season games. By doing so, the Cavaliers would extend the college careers of their seniors and become bowl-eligible for the first time since 2011.
Virginia took the first step Saturday night, hammering ACC rival Miami 30-13 at Scott Stadium. Now comes a more daunting challenge: the regular-season finale at Virginia Tech, where UVa hasn’t won since 1998.
The Cavaliers haven’t beaten Tech anywhere since 2003, when they prevailed 35-21 at Scott Stadium. But UVa players aren’t hung up on history as they prepare to play at Lane Stadium.
In an ACC game ESPN will televise, Virginia (5-6 overall, 3-4) meets Tech (5-6, 2-5) at 8 p.m. Friday.
“The past is the past,” senior tailback Khalek Shepherd told reporters Monday at John Paul Jones Arena. “You can’t go back and change it, but we have control of what happens this year, so all we can do is just focus this week on what we have to do as a team and just get ready for Friday.”
Another fifth-year senior, offensive guard Conner Davis, echoed those comments.
“People always talk about how they’ve beaten us 10 years in a row,” Davis said. “Virginia Tech’s beaten the Virginia program, but they’ve never beaten this team before. They’ve beaten other Virginia teams in the past, but this is the team that’s going to go up there on Friday and play [the Hokies].”
Storylines abound as the annual battle for the Commonwealth Cup approaches. Among other things, a UVa win Friday night would end Tech’s streak of 21 consecutive bowl appearances.
“There’s a lot of external forces around this game right now, and we’re not really thinking about all that stuff,” Davis said. “We’re just going out there and playing the game. We know what’s on the line, and we gotta go out there and win. That’s like last week. All we were thinking about was Miami, and we got that done.”
Davis, who starred at Deep Run High in the Richmond area, is among the UVa players who received scholarship offers from Virginia Tech. He never seriously considered becoming a Hokie.
“I’ve been a Virginia fan my whole life, and I chose here,” Davis said. “Best decision I ever made.”
Media members who took part in Monday’s press conference at JPJ tried repeatedly to get bulletin-board material. The players who fielded questions — Shepherd, Davis and senior linebackers Henry Coley and Daquan Romero — did not bite.
“I’m just going to let the pads speak instead of my mouth,” Romero said.
Asked about the animosity between the longtime rivals, Shepherd said, “I’m not a real hostile guy, personally. Coach London always emphasizes, and this is like my mentality too: You respect every team that you play, but you fear no team. We respect Virginia Tech. Virginia Tech’s a great program, a great team under Coach [Frank] Beamer.
“We just have to make sure that our mentality and what we want to do is set. That’s what we’ve been doing this week, pushing each other, doing the extra mile, so we can get ready for Friday, because Friday’s a big game, and this is the type of game you dream about.”
Head coach Mike London, who is 0-4 against the Hokies, said the Wahoos “understand the importance of the game and the rivalry game and all these things that are talked about and written about. Our focus has just been on winning the football game, controlling our own destiny for an opportunity to play another one. That’s all we’ve talked about, and that’s all we’re concerning ourselves with.”
Another streak could end Friday night. Since winning 33-6 at NC State on Nov. 3, 2012, UVa has dropped nine straight road games. The `Hoos are 0-4 away from Scott Stadium this season. Only one of those games was not competitive: Virginia’s 35-10 loss at Georgia Tech on Nov. 1.
NIGHT TO REMEMBER: In his final game at Scott Stadium, Shepherd assumed a leading role Saturday night after starting tailback Kevin Parks took a blow to the head on a first-quarter carry.
Parks sat out the rest of the game, and Shepherd, who rushed for a touchdown in the fourth quarter, finished with 95 yards on 22 carries, both career highs.
“I wouldn’t say a dream, but it was a great opportunity at the right time,” Shepherd said. “It was just a good feeling. Every week I prepare as if I’m a starter, just in case things like that happen, because you never know on any given game. Something can happen, so you have to be ready when your number’s called.”
Davis said: “Obviously when Kevin went down, from a friend standpoint, you always hate seeing that. But we knew that we were going to have to step up, and then we saw Khalek come in, and we were 100-percent confident in what he was going to do.”
Parks, who ranks sixth in career rushing yards at UVa, could return for the regular-season finale. His “prognosis for being able to play looks good,” London said Monday.
UNBROKEN: Injuries have hammered the Cavaliers’ offensive line this season, and, with guard Ryan Doull and tackle Sadiq Olanrewaju out, assistant coach Scott Wachenheim’s group was short-handed again Saturday night.
Even so, the Cavaliers rushed for 195 yards and did not allow a sack against the Hurricanes.
“It was an awesome game, and we rushed the ball really well against a good Miami defense,” Davis said. “Khalek and the running backs made us look good. They made great cuts. We always say, just give the running back the hole and he’ll do the rest for us. That gave us a lot of confidence.”
Virginia’s quarterbacks have been sacked 12 times this season. Only two ACC teams — Georgia Tech (10) and Duke (11) — have allowed fewer sacks.
“We’ve done really well, but we still have games left,” Davis said. “We’re not satisfied, and we’re still hungry.”
Among the linemen who played extensively against Miami was right tackle Jack English, a graduate of St. Christopher’s School in Richmond. English, a redshirt freshman, worked at defensive end and tight end at UVa before moving to offensive tackle this season.
“I’m proud of him,” Davis said. “A lot of people can’t do that, and the fact that he’s been able to do that as a redshirt freshman is incredible.”
Davis smiled. “It’s probably just because he’s a Richmond offensive lineman or something like that. They breed `em good down there.”
English “is a guy that you cheer for because he’s a hometown product from Richmond,” London said, “and now he’s played in some big games, and he’ll have many more opportunities to play in big games here.”
BREAKOUT SEASON: Senior Darius Jennings is averaging 26.8 yards per kickoff return, which leads the ACC. He ranks 12th nationally.
Jennings also has excelled as a wide receiver this season. He has 26 catches for a team-high 498 yards and two touchdowns, and he’s rushed 21 times for 114 yards and another score.
A graduate of Gilman School in Baltimore, Jennings ranks No. 5 all-time at Virginia in career receptions (132) and No. 9 in career receiving yards (1,644).
TOUGH GOING: A common denominator in the Cavaliers’ losing streak to Tech has been their offense’s struggles against longtime coordinator Bud Foster’s defense.
During London’s tenure as head coach, Virginia has scored only three touchdowns against the Hokies, and one was by defensive lineman Brent Urban, who recovered a fumble and returned it for a TD in 2012.
“Virginia Tech has a great defense,” Shepherd said. “They have a great defense every year, so we have to bring our A-game and make sure we limit the mistakes and match their intensity. We just gotta get ready for a dogfight.”
Among Football Bowl Subdivision teams, the Hokies rank 18th in scoring defense, 22nd in total defense, 50th in rushing defense and 12th in passing yards allowed.
Tech is coming off a 6-3 overtime loss to Wake Forest. Neither team scored in regulation.
“A lot of people try to say it was one of the worst games ever, but I knew it was going to be that kind of performance,” UVa linebacker Henry Coley said. “I didn’t expect Wake Forest not to score at all, but Tech’s defense has always been solid … It was just a defensive game.”
In its second season under coordinator Jon Tenuta, Virginia’s defense has been much-improved. The Cavaliers rank 45th nationally in scoring defense, 26th in total defense, 15th in rushing defense and 73rd in passing yards allowed.
With 32 sacks, Virginia ranks fourth among ACC teams. (The Hokies, with 42, are first.)
Two of UVa’s best defensive performances have come against the ACC’s top two tailbacks: Pittsburgh’s James Conner and Miami’s Duke Johnson. In an Oct. 4, win over Pitt, Virginia held Conner to 83 yards rushing. Johnson finished with a season-low 88 yards on the ground Saturday night.
“You take pride in it,” Coley said. “You never want a guy to go over 100 yards rushing.”
PEAKING AT RIGHT TIME: The win over Miami ended a four-game losing streak for the `Hoos and was easily their best performance of the season.
“Whenever you get a win like that against a team like that,” Davis said, “it would give anybody confidence, especially going into a game like Virginia Tech on the road.”
Coley said: “I can look back and say Miami might have been our only game where we played 60 minutes of football: offensively, defensively and on special teams. We have to put together the same type of game this week, because I know the Virginia Tech guys, they’re going to come into the game with the mindset that they can’t lose.”