Nov. 28, 2014
By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — No matter what happens Friday night at Lane Stadium in Blacksburg, Mike London will be back as UVa’s football coach next season, and for that his players are thankful.
That doesn’t lessen the importance of the regular-season finale to the Cavaliers. At 8 o’clock, in the annual battle for the Commonwealth Cup, Virginia (5-6 overall, 3-4 ACC) meets Virginia Tech (5-6, 2-5) in a Coastal Division game that ESPN will televise.
“It’s been circled on my calendar for a while now,” junior defensive end Eli Harold said Wednesday at the George Welsh Indoor Practice Facility.
“I can’t even say how I feel. I love this team, first and foremost. I feel that we have a great opportunity. We want to let our pads talk and let the game plan be the game plan and go in there, at their place, and beat them.”
The Hokies took possession of the Cup on Nov. 27, 2004, and the Wahoos have yet to reclaim it. Tech’s 10-game winning streak is the longest by either team in a series that began in 1895.
Another streak of which the Hokies are proud is their run of 21 consecutive bowl appearances. A victory by the `Hoos on Friday night not only would make them bowl-eligible for the first time since 2011, it would end Tech’s postseason streak.
As satisfying as playing spoiler would be for Virginia, which hasn’t won in Blacksburg since 1998, the “focus is really just to get another win and go to a bowl,” senior linebacker Daquan Romero said.
“Really, the focus is just on us. It’s not really on what they’ve done in the past. You can’t rewrite history and all the success they’ve had in the past. All we can do is really focus on us and go to a bowl and start our own history.”
The Hokies did not expect the stakes to be so high for this game.
“We had a chance to get bowl-eligible the last time and didn’t get it done,” Tech coach Frank Beamer said.
Beamer was referring to the proceedings last weekend in Winston-Salem, N.C., where, at the Hokies’ expense, Wake Forest collected its first ACC victory. After 60 scoreless minutes, the Demon Deacons made two field goals in overtime and won 6-3.
The `Hoos enter this game with more momentum. They ended a four-game losing streak in emphatic fashion last weekend, hammering ACC rival Miami 30-13 on Senior Night at Scott Stadium.
“It’s a tribute to the coaches and the players for keeping that buy in approach that we had early on in the season,” London said, “and then to play a good Miami team and see things come together in all three phases was satisfying.”
Virginia recorded four sacks, blocked a field goal, and intercepted a pass against the Hurricanes.
“When you’re playing well and you’re playing as a unit and everything’s clicking, you see how good you can be,” said Harold, who with eight is tied with sophomore linebacker Max Valles for the team lead.
“Knowing they’re with us on Friday, that’s a reassuring feeling,” offensive guard Conner Davis said of defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta’s charges.
On offense, the Cavaliers attempted only three passes in the final two quarters against the `Canes.
“If it works, then why do anything else, you know?” quarterback Greyson Lambert said of UVa’s second-half strategy.
“We didn’t really have to throw the ball in the second half. We were able to run the ball. We were able to get some misdirection with some jet sweeps and motions and some counter-type plays, and we were able to pound the rock. But every game’s different, and we’ll have to approach this game its own separate way like we have the past games. I wouldn’t say there’s any special formula. We just gotta play the game.”
This is Lambert’s first season as the Cavaliers’ starter. In eight games — Lambert missed three with an ankle injury — the redshirt sophomore from Jesup, Ga., has completed 139 of 229 passes for 1,421 yards and nine touchdowns, with 10 interceptions.
In 2013, Lambert appeared in seven games as David Watford’s backup. One of those was the regular-season finale against Virginia Tech at Scott Stadium. Usually an accurate passer, Lambert completed only 4 of 16 throws that day for 54 yards and was picked off once.
“I definitely learned a lot from that game,” Lambert said this week. “They played really, really well in that game, Virginia Tech did defensively, and they gave me some stuff that I had never really experienced before. And so that was a great learning experience for me, and my hat went off to them that game.
“I try to learn from every game, and every rep of every game, and that’s really been my goal. And so I do definitely feel like I’ve come a long ways from that game, but I feel like I’m able to grow every game, and next year I’ll come a long way from the game that we’ll play on Friday. As a football player in general, with experience you start to grow.”
During London’s tenure as head coach, the Cavaliers have two scored only two offensive touchdowns in four games against Tech: one in 2010 and the other in `12.
“We just gotta go out there and be ourselves,” Davis said. “We can’t go out there and pretend to be someone else or do other things that we don’t do. I thought against Miami we showed the type of offense that we can be and the type of offense that we’re going to be.”
Virginia Tech has an ACC-leading 42 sacks this fall. Uncharacteristic breakdowns have plagued the Hokies’ defense, but it remains formidable, with such playmakers as junior end Dadi Nicholas (7.5 sacks) and sophomore cornerback Kendall Fuller (14 pass breakups).
“[Defensive coordinator] Bud Foster’s been there a long time, and so he’s had the same philosophy, same concepts for 20-some years,” Davis said. “So guys have just been in the system for a long time. They know what they’re doing. They play fundamental football, and they’re athletic, and they’ve just proven it year after year. They have that tradition, and I’m well aware of it.”
After poor performances in the 2010 and `11 games against Tech, UVa’s defense has played well in the past two. The Hokies won 17-14 in 2012 on a last-second field goal at Lane Stadium, and Virginia held them to 364 yards in a 16-6 game last year in Charlottesville.
Harold had three sacks in the 2013 game, a performance that motivated him in the offseason.
“It really showed me what I could do,” Harold said. “It really pushed me to gain that weight, get that much faster and do whatever I can to help the team win. That’s what I focused on coming into the offseason, to just do whatever I can to help my body and help my team be as successful as we can be.”
A week before the Virginia Tech game last season, UVa’s All-America safety, Anthony Harris, was ejected for targeting a Miami player. The controversial penalty forced Harris to sit out the first half of the finale at Scott Stadium.
“I’m excited to have the opportunity to play in a full game against a good team, and a team that’s our rival,” Harris said this week. “It’s going to be an exciting one for everyone playing in it.”
Redshirt junior Michael Brewer has started every game at quarterback for the Hokies. He’s been prone to mistakes, however, and seldom-used redshirt sophomore Brenden Motley may well take snaps Friday night too.
“You never know what you’re going to get out of Tech, especially being the last week,” said Coley, a fifth-year senior.
Coley is from Virginia Beach, as is Harold. Romero is from Hampton. Harris and Davis are from the Richmond area. No one has to remind any of them what this game means, but the out-of-staters understand, too.
“Got a chance to beat Tech in Blacksburg,” said tailback Kevin Parks, a North Carolina native. “It doesn’t get any better than that.”
Davis said: “It’s a rivalry game. I’m not going to pretend that it’s not. I look forward to this game every year. But there was nothing [extra] that was said [after the Miami game]. Everyone knew it was time to get ready.”
“You don’t want to get overly excited,” he said. “You don’t want to me too under-excited about a game. A game is a game. The same preparation is going into this week as any other week, and we’re just ready to get after it.”
UVa athletics director Craig Littlepage announced Wednesday that London would return as head coach in 2015. A day earlier, on the ACC coaches’ teleconference, London had acknowledged the many storylines swirling around the game in Blacksburg.
“All those things you have to take into consideration,” London said. “But ultimately the game is played on the field and in between the white lines, and the preparation and the players’ ability to execute, perform, is the thing that matters most from year to year.”
Asked Monday about playing for London, Romero said, “You gotta go out there and give your all for that man, because he’ll do the same thing for you … A man with that kind of dignity, you have to give him everything you got. Not just for his job, but for the person he is.”