By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — For University of Virginia linebacker Zach Bradshaw, the realization clobbered him at practice Tuesday morning: His college football career was days away from being over.
That was unsettling, Bradshaw said with a smile Wednesday, “but today I thought went a lot smoother.”
For Bradshaw and the rest of the Cavaliers’ seniors, a class that includes such players as center Jackson Matteo, running backs Taquan Mizzell and Albert Reid (who’s sidelined with an injury), wide receiver Keeon Johnson, offensive linemen Eric Smith and Michael Mooney, nose tackle Donte Wilkins, defensive end Mark Hall and safety Kelvin Rainey, the end comes Saturday in Blacksburg.
At noon, in a game ESPN2 will televise, Virginia (2-9 overall, 1-6 ACC) meets Virginia Tech (8-3, 5-2) at Lane Stadium, with the Commonwealth Cup going to the winner.
“It’s going to be bittersweet,” Bradshaw said of playing alongside his close friend Micah Kiser, a redshirt junior, for the last time.
A victory will send the Hokies to the ACC championship game as the Coastal Division representative. For the Wahoos, there will be no postseason for the fifth straight year. Still, a win over Tech, which has won 12 straight games in a series that dates to 1895, would be a significant breakthrough for Virginia, which is in its first year under head coach Bronco Mendenhall.
“Obviously this has been a really rough season for us,” Bradshaw said, “but to break the streak would be a good way to set up next season for this team.”
In its 2014 visit to Lane Stadium, Virginia took a 20-17 lead on a touchdown with 2:55 remaining, only to see the Hokies rally for a 24-20 victory.
Kiser saw UVA’s seniors crying in the locker room after that game, but he knew he’d have other opportunities to try to knock off Tech.
“I was only a second-year, a redshirt freshman, but now that I’m older,” Kiser said this week, his perspective has changed.
“A lot of these guys that are leaving I came in with, I’ve grinded with them in the summer and the spring, all year, for three, four years,” said Kiser, the ACC’s leading tackler. “Just seeing that, you realize, `Man, I’m running out of time here, too,’ and you want to be part of a change and part of a winning program. You kind of start to feel like an old guy and that your time’s running out a little bit.
“But I’m optimistic that hopefully we leave Lane Stadium with a win and send the guys out the right away.”
Bradshaw and Kiser played on special teams against the Hokies in 2014. They’ll be the starting inside linebackers Saturday in Virginia’s 3-4 defense.
“This is the first opportunity that I have to actually play Tech and play a decent role,” Bradshaw said.
A knee injury kept Bradshaw out of last year’s Commonwealth Cup clash at Scott Stadium, where the Hokies rallied in the fourth quarter for a 23-20 victory. The next day, Mike London resigned after six seasons as UVA’s head coach, and Mendenhall was hired as his successor in December.
Mendenhall came to Virginia from BYU, where he won 99 games in 11 seasons as head coach, and optimism greeted his arrival. Behind the scenes,, there have been many victories to celebrate during Mendenhall’s first year, players and coaches say. On the field, though, the Cavaliers have struggled, especially in the second halves of games.
Virginia has lost six straight since winning Oct. 1 at Duke.
“It’s been frustrating,” Bradhsaw said, “and I would say that when we were coming into the season, I thought for sure we were going to be successful. Sometimes it just takes a little bit longer for things to develop than you anticipated.
“Our record hasn’t really reflected what kind of season it’s been. I think it’s been a great season for just laying the foundation of what Coach Mendenhall and his staff are planning to do here. It’s been a lot of fun. This coaching staff has brought a lot of energy and brought a whole new culture over here, so I’m very excited and optimistic about the future and sad this season is starting to come to an end.”
The Hokies are also in their first season under a new coach, Justin Fuente, who replaced Frank Beamer. Like Mendenhall, Fuente didn’t need long to grasp the intensity of the Tech-UVA rivalry.
“I think with each passing day, I gain more perspective on what this means to so many people,” Fuente said on the ACC coaches’ teleconference.
The Hokies are coming off a dramatic win in South Bend, Ind., where they rallied to defeat Notre Dame 34-31 last Saturday. That marked the third close victory in four games for Tech, which edged Pitt 39-36 on Oct. 27 and Duke 24-21 on Nov. 5. (The Hokies lost 30-20 to Georgia Tech at Lane Stadium on Nov. 12.)
“They find a way to win,” Kiser said. “That’s just a hat off to their program. I think we’re going in the right direction, I think we’re getting close, but close doesn’t cut it. I would like to think that we would be able to come through if it came down to it, and I hope that we can.”
For UVA, fifth-year senior Matt Johns will make his second straight start at quarterback Saturday. Johns, who started every game for the Cavaliers in 2015, knows well the challenge veteran coordinator Bud Foster’s defense presents for an opposing offense.
“They are everywhere,” Johns said of the Hokies. “Their guys are all over the place and they play very good defense.”
Junior quarterback Jerod Evans leads Tech’s offense. A junior-college transfer who arrived in Blacksburg this year, Evans has tied the school record for touchdown passes in a season, with 24, and he has elite targets in wide receivers Isaiah Ford and Cam Phillips and tight end Bucky Hodges.
Evans also has rushed for a team-high 675 yards.
“Tech presents a lot of challenges, but we’ve faced a lot of challenges all year,” Mendenhall said. “This will just be the next one.”
Growing up in Baltimore, Kiser knew little about the rivalry between UVA and Virginia Tech. Once he enrolled at Virginia, however, he learned about “the impact of the game and the importance of the game,” Kiser said.
“Now, being a Wahoo, it means a lot, and I definitely would like to be part of the group that ended that streak.”
Junior safety Quin Blanding said: “We’ve just got to be consistent. That’s the bottom line. Consistency is the key. We’ve just got to keep fighting.”
The history of the series should have no bearing on Saturday’s game, say the Cavaliers.
“I’m not really even worried about anything that happened in the past,” senior nose tackle Donte Wilkins said.
“We’re just focused on what’s going to happen this year,” Blanding said.
Mendenhall’s message to his players? Focus on yourselves.
“That’s how we win or lose games,” Wilkins said. “It’s not because of what anybody else does. It’s because of what we do or don’t do. It’s because of our execution. That’s just Coach Mendenhall’s thing. Focus on us, and we control what we do.”