— Virginia Cavaliers (@VirginiaSports) November 22, 2023
By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — As a wide receiver at Clemson, Tony Elliott gained an appreciation for the school’s rivalry with the South Carolina. Not until he joined the Tigers’ coaching staff, however, did he fully grasp how much the schools’ annual game meant to fans.
“They planned their entire year around the football season and then this game at the end,” Elliott said Tuesday.
Elliott is in his second year as head coach at Virginia, which is part of an intense rivalry, too. UVA typically closes the regular season against Virginia Tech, with the winner taking—or keeping—possession of the Commonwealth Cup. The series paused last year after the tragedy that took the lives of three UVA players, but the Wahoos and the Hokies will clash this weekend for the first time since 2021.
At 3:30 p.m. Saturday, UVA (3-8 overall, 2-5 ACC) hosts Tech (5-6, 4-3) at Scott Stadium.
“It’s an opportunity for both of us,” Elliott said. “We’re battling and jockeying to say this is our state.”
From his first day on the job in December 2021, Elliott said, he sensed that the UVA-Tech rivalry was similar to the one that links Clemson and South Carolina.
Many of the congratulatory texts he received after being hired, Elliott said with a smile Tuesday, had a common theme: “Welcome to the family. Glad you’re here. Now, beat Tech. I was like, OK, I get it. This feels very familiar.”
After the November 2022 shooting in which Lavel Davis Jr., Devin Chandler and D’Sean Perry were killed, UVA received tremendous support from other colleges, including Virginia Tech and its head football coach, Brent Pry.
“So you can tell that there is a very, very strong level of respect [between the schools],” Elliott said, “but we also know that what happens those three hours on Saturday is going to last for the entire year.”
The Hokies, who are in their second season under Pry, must win Saturday to become bowl-eligible. For the Cavaliers, this is their bowl game. With a victory Saturday, they would finish with back-to-back wins for the first time since 2003, when they defeated Virginia Tech at Scott Stadium and then beat Pittsburgh in the Continental Tire Bowl.
“A win would mean a ton,” said tight end Grant Misch, a sixth-year senior. “It would show that we’re very resilient. We’re a resilient team with everything that we’ve been through.”
Of Virginia’s losses, five were by a combined 17 points. “The season hasn’t gone the way we wanted it to go, but it shows that we’re not going to quit,” Misch said, “and that’s something that [the program] can build on going into next year and the years following that.”
The benefits of advancing to a bowl game include the dozen or so additional practices a team gets after the regular season. The Cavaliers have let too many winnable games slip away and so won’t get those extra practices. Still, Elliott said, a win Saturday “would create great momentum into the final weeks of school so we can attack training and then give the guys some energy while they’re away over the break to continue to put in the work necessary, not necessarily to make up for what we didn’t take advantage of, but not lose momentum.”
Elliott said he sees clear signs of progress. “You would like for it to happen faster, there is no question, in terms of the results, but I’m really, really proud of this group of individuals, staff and players for their resilience amidst just the normal adversity that comes with the football season, and then the things that were tacked on as a result of what happened at the end of last year.”
Junior safey Jonas Sanker said the “program is gonna continue to get better. We had a lot of close losses this year, but those are fixable mistakes. Those come down to a few plays, losing focus on those plays. I think with the experience we’re gaining now and the momentum we’re building at the end of this year, I think that just leads to success for the next year.”
Since reclaiming the Commonwealth Cup in 2019 with a 39-30 victory at Scott Stadium, Virginia has dropped two straight in the series. The Hokies won 33-15 in Blacksburg in 2020 and 29-24 in Charlottesville in 2021. That turned out to be final game at UVA for Bronco Mendenhall, Elliott’s predecessor as head coach.
The approach to rivalry games often varies from program to program and coach to coach. Elliott said he’s trying “not to put undue pressure on the guys, because at the end of the day you’ve got to prepare the same way that you prepared for other games. The way you frame it is this is just like any other game in terms of the preparation process, but the significance of the outcome is a little bit different.”
The team will get together for a Thanksgiving dinner on Wednesday night, Elliott said. The Hoos will practice Thursday morning, after which the players will have the afternoon off. Those who live a two-hour drive (or less) from Charlottesville may go home to see their families. For the others, if “they don’t have a teammate to go home with, we’ll make sure they have somewhere to eat with somebody on the staff,” Elliott said. “Nobody will be on their own for Thanksgiving.”
The team will reconvene on Friday for the final walk-through of the season. On Saturday, not only will the Hoos host their biggest rivals, they’ll celebrate Senior Day in a pregame ceremony at Scott Stadium.
Among those who’ll be recognized is tailback Mike Hollins, who was wounded in the shooting last November. Hollins, a graduate student, who’s in his fifth year in the Cavaliers’ program, has rushed for a team-high seven touchdowns this season, and he also has a receiving TD. More impressive than No. 7’s on-field contributions, though, have been the toughness and perseverance he’s demonstrated in his recovery.
“I can’t really describe it, to be honest with you,” Elliott said. “I think he’s one of those transformational type of individuals that we’ll look back years from now and be like, wow, we were around somebody that’s truly, truly special … I don’t think any of us really can appreciate or put into context mentally what he had to do to be able to play football again.”
Hollins has had challenging days, including the anniversary last Monday of the Nov. 13 shooting. But five days later, he rushed for 50 yards in UVA’s 30-27 win over Duke at Scott Stadium.
“For him to play in that game last week, and not only play well, to play well, play hard, play focused, and not be distracted, [speaks to] the mental toughness that he has and he possesses,” Elliott said. “That’s what I’m so grateful for, because now, again, that gets woven into the DNA of the program. So guys get to see that every single day.”
Some of the other players who’ll be honored Saturday haven’t had prominent roles on game days, but they’ve helped build what Elliott believes will be a foundation for future success.
“I’ve told the staff, we’ll remember this football team for the rest of our lives,” Elliott said, “and we’ll remember a lot about it, just because of the impact that this group of young people has made on our staff.”
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