By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — As the University of Virginia’s offensive coordinator, Steve Fairchild has faced Virginia Tech’s defense twice. In those games, both wins for the Hokies, the Cavaliers have totaled 26 points, on four field goals, two touchdowns and two extra points.
Moreover, one of those touchdowns came on a 3-yard interception return by defensive tackle David Dean. Overall, UVA averaged only 299.5 yards in those two games against the Hokies.
Fairchild’s third encounter with Virginia Tech’s longtime defensive coordinator, Bud Foster, comes Saturday at Scott Stadium. At noon, UVA (4-7 overall, 3-4 ACC) closes the season against Tech (5-6, 3-4) in a game ESPNU will televise.
This is not one of Foster’s vintage defenses. Among ACC teams, Virginia Tech ranks seventh in total defense and 10th in scoring defense. Even so, Virginia expects little to come easily against the Hokies.
“They’re good players, good coaches, they play hard, and they have an aggressive scheme where they load up on the run and play a lot of man-to-man,” Fairchild said after practice Tuesday morning. “They are a good defense.”
Virginia quarterback Matt Johns, a redshirt junior, said Monday that the Hokies “do a great job pre-snap of tricking you and then getting into something that is completely different. [Foster is] a great defensive coordinator. That’s not news to anyone here.”
The Wahoos rank 10th in the ACC in total offense and 12th in scoring offense. In rushing offense, Virginia is 12th. If the ‘Hoos are able to move the ball on the ground Saturday, their chances of ending an 11-game losing streak in this series figure to improve significantly.
“I think for us establishing the run is always the first thing we try to do,” Fairchild said. “It takes pressure off the protection and opens up some better down-and-distance situations if you run the ball well.”
The key for UVA’s offense? “Just execution,” Fairchild said. “Don’t beat ourselves. Make plays when they’re there.”
TUNNEL VISION: Frank Beamer is retiring as Virginia Tech’s head coach at the end of this season, which adds another storyline to the battle for the Commonwealth Cup. But the `Hoos say they haven’t given much thought to Beamer’s impending departure. Their priorities lie elsewhere.
“We want to go out with a win,” sophomore linebacker Micah Kiser said Tuesday. “We want to send our seniors out right. We want to go out winning the Cup back.
“We’re mostly focused on us. Coach Beamer’s had a great career. He’s left a great legacy there, but we’re focused on Virginia football, and we want to send our seniors out with a win.”
Johns said: “We’re playing for our seniors. We want them to go our on top, and that’s our focus.”
The class includes such players as wide receivers Canaan Severin and T.J. Thorpe, offensive linemen Ross Burbank and Jay Whitmire, fullback Vincent Croce, tight end Charlie Hopkins, defensive linemen Trent Corney, Mike Moore, David Dean and Kwontie Moore, cornerbacks Maurice Canady and Demetrious Nicholson, and kicker Ian Frye.
“Those guys are my brothers, and they mean everything to me,” Johns said. “It’s one of those things where these are the guys that I’ve fought with all along. We’ve gone through the same journey, and we know how tough it’s been. We’ve been on highs, we’ve been on lows. We really want to send them out on a high note and it’s about those guys this Saturday.”
A win over the Hokies, Severin said, “would mean everything. There’s been a lot of guys that weren’t able to do it. As a senior, if [the younger Cavaliers] are playing for me, I’m playing for the guys that didn’t do it. The LaRoy Reynoldses, the Oday Oboushis and Morgan Moseses, [Chris] Long and all those guys. I want to get it for all them. I want to be in good company and tell them, `I got this one for you guys.’ ”
At his weekly press conference Monday at John Paul Jones Arena, head coach Mike London lauded the team’s seniors, whom he called “a group of individuals that when tough times and tough game situations occur have been able to be the example of leadership, how you handle those things and [be] a voice of reason.”
The seniors have “hung in there from a mental standpoint, from an effort standpoint,” London said. “There’s never been a lack of effort.”
LEARNING ON THE FLY: Trent Corney is from Ontario, Canada, and he was anything but well-versed in this rivalry before arriving in Charlottesville in 2012.
“I knew nothing at all,” Corney said, laughing. “I didn’t know much about Virginia at all. I didn’t even know where Virginia was. I just had an opportunity to play at a Division I program, and I was like, `Heck, yes, I’m going to take this. Let’s play some football.’ ”
Over the years, Corney has gained an appreciation for the rivalry.
“The coolest part is just the atmosphere during the games,” he said. “I haven’t been playing as much the last few [UVA-Tech] games. But on the sidelines, from what I remember, those were the most exciting games. Even though we lost, they were really exciting games to be a part of and just to watch and play a little bit in. I’m just really excited for the atmosphere [Saturday], and hopefully we can get a good crowd and it’ll be a really enjoyable game to finish off my last game at Virginia.”
Corney, who played primarily on special teams before this year, has started every game at defensive end this season. With 8.5 tackles for loss, he’s third on the team, behind Kiser (12.5) and Mike Moore (11.5).
Sacks have been frustratingly elusive for the 6-3, 255-pound Corney. But he’s persevered, and he recorded two sacks — his first of the season — in Virginia’s win over Duke on Saturday.
“I knew something like that was going to come soon,” Corney said. “It just needed to be the right time and the right opportunities. Obviously the offense got a big lead up on [Duke], and that was a big thing with the sacks. Duke went to more of a passing attack. For me, seeing the game’s kind of hard, so when I know it’s pass, that’s when I can get in my track stance and just get off the ball.”
This season has been a learning experience for Corney, perhaps the Cavaliers’ best all-around athlete. With 34 tackles, he’s tied for eighth on the team with junior safety Wilfred Wahee.
“I’ve missed a lot of sacks this year, to be honest with you,” Corney said. “I’ve looked pretty poor at times. But I don’t think it’s where you start, I think it’s where you finish. I’m a completely different player than I was the first game, vs. UCLA in California, and I still feel like I can get a lot better, and going into the next game I can definitely [translate] the good things I did against Duke to Virginia Tech, and I’m hoping to string together another good game and help us win this game.
HARD TO HANDLE: For Virginia Tech, one of the heroes of its 24-20 comeback win over UVA last season was tight end Bucky Hodges.
Now a 6-7, 241-pound redshirt sophomore, Hodges had a 50-yard reception on the Hokies’ final drive, which he capped with a 9-yard touchdown catch with 1:48 remaining at Lane Stadium.
“He can play like a tight end or a wide receiver,” Kiser said.
Hodges has 33 catches for 458 yards and six touchdowns this season, and he’s among Virginia defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta’s concerns heading into the finale.
“Very versatile player,” Kiser said. “If you have him against a linebacker, he can use his speed. If you have him against DBs, he can use his size. But Coach Tenuta will put us in the right places to be effective, and we’ll try to neutralize [Hodges] as best as we can.”
SUPPORTING ROLE: Taquan Mizzell, who’s listed as a tailback, leads the Cavaliers in receptions with 68. Of Virginia’s wideouts, Canaan Severin and T.J. Thorpe, who are seniors, have 51 and 20 catches, respectively, and true freshman Olamide Zaccheaus has 19.
Keeon Johnson, a 6-3, 210-pound junior, has been less productive as a receiver — he has 13 catches for 173 yards and one TD — but he’s a punishing blocker who excels in the running game.
“He’s really embraced that,” London said. “He’s learning. He’s gotten better and will keep continue to keep doing that.”
With Severin and Thorpe leaving, Johnson figures to have a more prominent role in the passing game next season.
TURNING POINT: Early in the second quarter of Virginia’s Oct. 17 game at Scott Stadium, Mizzell lost a fumble that a Syracuse defender returned 44 yards for a touchdown.
The Cavaliers went on to win 44-38 in triple overtime that day, thanks in no small part to Mizzell, who rushed for two touchdowns and caught 10 passes for 69 yards.
“He kind of started running like a madman after he fumbled against Syracuse,” Matt Johns said. “I’ve never seen that anger in his eyes. He was breaking tackles left and right the rest of that game and he wasn’t going to be denied to the end zone. I think he just took that mentality and saw what he is capable of doing with his power and speed. He’s done a great job continuing that the rest of the season.”
For the season, Mizzell leads the `Hoos in rushing yards (645) and rushing touchdowns (four). He’s second on the team in receiving yards (671) and touchdown catches (four).
Mizzell, who struggled for much of his two first seasons at UVA, has shown as a junior why he was such a heralded recruit coming out of Bayside High in Virginia Beach.
“It’s been unbelievable,” Johns said. “Everyone’s been wondering, ‘What’s all about this Smoke?’ I think everyone this year has seen what Smoke really is. He’s such a special player. He doesn’t say much, but he’s just so much fun to play with … He’s just a guy that’s just a fighter.”
STAYING POSITIVE: Another Bayside High graduate is cornerback Demetrious Nicholson, a fifth-year senior who has mentored Mizzell at UVA.
“That was real big in my growing process,” Mizzell said. “I didn’t know too much about college, of course, and he was just helping me step by step getting used to things.”
Nicholson, who started the first 30 games of his college career, took a medical redshirt last season because of a toe injury. He hasn’t played as much this season as he might have liked, but Nicholson remains unfailing upbeat.
“I just do whatever Coach asks me to do and play my role,” Nicholson said. “I’ve been doing that since I’ve come back from my injury. Whatever it is they ask me to do, that’s what I do.”
Asked about his positive attitude, Nicholson said, “I feel like it’s something I’ve always had, a characteristic I’ve always possessed. You don’t want to drown yourself in your sorrows more so than you already are, in the situation that you’re in. So I definitely try to stay positive, stay optimistic in the locker room. I think that helps keep faith, keep hope and keep everything pushing forward. Because you can’t go and think about the past too much — what went wrong and what could have been, what should have been. You’ve got to live in the present moment. I try to do that every day I wake up.”