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By Jeff White (
CHARLOTTESVILLE– At this time last year, Carla Williams was the athletics director-in-waiting at the University of Virginia. She monitored the Nov. 24 football game between UVA and Virginia Tech, but she was still deputy AD at the University of Georgia.
The 100th football game between this state’s ACC schools will have more personal meaning for Williams, who succeeded Craig Littlepage as Virginia’s AD last December.
A graduate of Georgia, Williams is steeped in the history of her alma mater’s rivalry with Georgia Tech. She’s about to make her first visit to Lane Stadium. UVA meets Virginia Tech in Blacksburg at 3:30 p.m. Friday in their annual battle for the Commonwealth Cup, and Williams has a good idea what to expect.
“Rivalry games are always emotional,” Williams said this week. “It really doesn’t matter if one team is ranked ahead of the other. Because it’s a rivalry, there’s always a lot of intensity.”
For the first time since 1992, Virginia (7-4 overall, 4-3 ACC) enters this game with a better overall record than Tech (4-6, 3-4). The Cavaliers have lost 14 straight games in a series that started in 1895, but they’ve made significant progress in their third season under coach Bronco Mendenhall.
“Bronco’s done a tremendous job with his squad,” Virginia Tech head coach Justin Fuente told reporters Monday in Blacksburg. “They’re playing with confidence and toughness and discipline and deserve the success that they’ve had this year.”
Williams said: “For us, this year continues to be really special, because I’ve been so impressed with the work ethic and the heart of the team, and the preparation that our coaches, our staff and our student-athletes have put into every single game.
“Every single game we’ve played really hard. We’ve competed. So that’s been great to watch. I don’t expect anything different on Friday. I really hope the players and the coaches can experience some success on Friday, because they’ve put in the work, and they’ve earned it.”
Win or lose, Virginia is headed to a bowl game for the second straight season, the first time that’s happened in more than a decade.
If the Hokies lose, not only does their winning streak against UVA end, so does their string of 25 consecutive bowl appearances. If the Hokies prevail Friday, they’ll host Marshall next weekend in another game they would have to win to be eligible for postseason.
This is “essentially playoff football for us,” Tech head coach Justin Fuente told reporters Monday.
That’s not the case for the Wahoos, but that won’t lessen their enthusiasm for this game. It’s been their No. 1 priority since the end of last year.
“Beat Tech!” became the Cavaliers’ rallying cry in the offseason. His program won’t be able to realize its goals, Mendenhall knows, if the Hokies continue to dominate this series.
Breaking the streak “is one of those things that has to happen,” Mendenhall said Tuesday night on his radio show.
“I think we all realize the implications aren’t just normal implications. They’re at a higher level …  This game is more important to Virginia in terms of our regrowth and development and recapturing an exceptional college football team than a normal game.”
Not since 2011 has UVA won eight games in a season, and that’s “not easy to do and always welcome,” Williams said. “We’ve got great momentum already, so winning on Friday would add to that momentum.”
It would help recruiting and fundraising as well. “With it being a rivalry, winning is important,” Williams said, “but because of the impact it could have on the overall program, it makes it even more important.”
Mendenhall’s wide receivers coach is Marques Hagans, a standout on the UVA team that beat Virginia Tech 35-21 at Scott Stadium on Nov. 29, 2003. Virginia hasn’t defeated the Hokies since then.
“They’ve been consistent over the years, and you’ve got to respect that,” Hagans said. “But everything is about 2018, so we’ve just got focus on this game. That’s all that matters: this game, this Friday, this season. Nothing that happened previously, nothing that comes after this matters.”
If Mendenhall and the assistants who followed him from BYU to UVA after the 2015 season didn’t fully appreciate the magnitutde of the annual clash with Virginia Tech, they do now.
“I think the more you’re around anything, the more you learn about it,” Hagans said, “and I think that everybody’s on the same page.”
The Cavaliers, who lost 52-10 at Lane Stadium in 2016, were much more competitive last season. The Hokies won 10-0 at Scott Stadium.
“We’ve got to build upon that and do even better this year,” said Kelly Poppinga, UVA’s co-defensive coordinator.
Since the win over the Hokies in 2003, Virginia has scored more than 20 points against them only once: in 2007. But this has not been one of longtime coordinator Bud Foster’s better defenses at Virginia Tech.
Among ACC teams, the Hokies rank 11th in both scoring defense and total defense.
Asked Monday about Tech’s defense, Mendenhall called Foster “an exceptional coach … who has had years and years of success. I think their players try hard. The only thing I can say is there have been struggles with consistency, and [Tech’s defense] sometimes has given up big plays or points. Then in between it looks like Tech’s defense again.”

Injuries and attrition have depleted the Hokies’ experience and depth on defense. Still, Virginia is taking nothing for granted.
“They’ve got a lot of things they’re working through on their side,” UVA offensive coordinator Robert Anae said. “We’ll let them work through their side. From our side, we’ve got a lot of things to prepare for on a short week. I’ve given our guys a lot, and now we’ve got to master a great defense. That’s the task. It’s not an easy one. But I believe by the time we kick off our guys will be ready to do their best.”
Virginia ranks ninth in the ACC in rushing offense (171.2 yards per game). Junior quarterback Bryce Perkins has accounted for nearly 40 percent of that total, and that percentage would be considerably higher if not for the losses he’s taken on sacks. Perkins, who enrolled at UVA in January, also has thrown for 2,213 yards and 19 touchdowns, with nine interceptions.
“It’s not a situation where you got a guy that just runs around there with no plan,” Fuente said. “He knows where to deliver the football. He’s got good composure and special athletic gifts to go and make plays all on his own. It will be a tremendous challenge to try to slow him down. Nobody has stopped him.”
Perkins suffered an ankle injury last weekend in UVA’s 30-27 overtime loss to Georgia Tech in Atlanta. He missed a first-quarter series while the medical staff examined him, then returned and played the rest of the game. He’s practiced as usual this week.
“He’s fiercely resilient,” Mendenhall said, “and he’s very tough.”
That’s been true of the whole UVA team this season. Under coordinator Nick Howell, the Cavaliers’ defense has lost several linemen for medical reasons but still ranks among the best in the ACC. Given UVA’s history of struggling to move the ball against and score on the Hokies, a stellar performance from the defense might be necessary Friday.
“It really comes down to just controlling big plays,” Poppinga said. “If we can control the big plays and we can tackle well and control the run game, we’ll give ourselves a great chance.”