Game Preview: Virginia squares off with Virginia Tech in the Commonwealth Clash
For the third time in four years, Virginia Tech (5-6, 3-4 ACC) goes into its season-ending Commonwealth Clash battle with in-state rival Virginia needing a win to become bowl-eligible and extend the program’s streak of winning seasons.
Which is probably why legendary coach Frank Beamer is heading off into the sunset of a forced retirement.
That Virginia (4-7, 3-4 ACC) has already clinched its fourth straight losing season is why Cavs coach Mike London could very well be coaching his last game in the series himself on Saturday in Scott Stadium.
The Hokies are three-point road favorites. The ESPN Football Power Index gives Virginia Tech a 67.1 percent chance of winning.
UVA offense vs. Virginia Tech defense Virginia is coming off a season-high 42 points and 502 yards of total offense in last week’s win over Duke. Quarterback Matt Johns threw for a career-high 344 yards on 24-of-33 passing, with two touchdowns, an interception and a 174.2 passer rating. Over the past three weeks, Johns is 78-for-116 (67.2 percent) for 884 yards, six touchdowns and two interceptions. For the season, Johns is 229-for-365 (62.7 percent) for 2,639 yards, 19 TDs and 15 INTs. Junior tailback Taquan Mizzell had 61 yards and two touchdowns on 17 carries and 43 yards and a touchdown on five catches. For the season, Mizzell has 645 yards rushing on 152 carries (4.3 yards per carry) and four touchdowns and a team-leading 68 catches for 671 yards (9.9 yards per catch) and four touchdowns through the air. Wideout Canaan Severin has 51 catches 713 yards and seven TDs. Virginia Tech is giving up 24.5 points (10th in the ACC) and 346.5 yards per game (seventh in the ACC), and the Hokies have been surprisingly porous against the run (172.5 yards per game, 11th in the ACC). Tech has forced a league-high 23 turnovers.
Virginia Tech offense vs. UVA defense The Tech offense isn’t what it used to be. The Hokies gain 373.2 yards per game, 11th in the ACC, and are ninth in rush yards per game (159.1) and 13th in yards per rushing attempt (3.7). Travon McMillian has been coming on of late, and has a team-leading 880 yards (5.3 yards per carry) and five rushing touchdowns. Starting quarterback Michael Brewer has thrown for 1,122 yards, 10 touchdowns and five interceptions in six games. Wideout Isaiah Ford has 57 catches for 816 yards and nine touchdowns. Also watch out for Cam Phillips (43 catches, 536 yards) and tight end Bucky Hodges (33 catches, 458 yards, six TDs). The Virginia D is the league’s worst scoring defense (33.0 points per game), 13th in total yards (421.3), 13th in pass yards allowed (256.5) and 14th in pass defense efficiency (152.9).
Special Teams Virginia punter Nicholas Conte is averaging 44.5 yards per kick, with 14 of his 46 punts pinning opponents inside the 20. The punt coverage grouping allows 8.2 yards per return (20 returns). Placekicker Ian Frye is 15-of-19 on field goals, including 4-of-7 on kicks of 40-49 yards. Kickoff specialist Dylan Sims has 27 touchbacks on 55 kickoffs and an average of 63.1 yards per kick. The kick return game is nothing special, averaging 18.0 yards per return, and the kick coverage group allows 22.1 yards per return. Virginia Tech punter A.J. Hughes averages 43.0 yards per kick, with 17 of his 58 punts pinning opponents inside the 20. The punt coverage grouping allows 2.2 yards per return (17 returns). Placekicker Joey Slye is 18-of-25 on field goals, including 9-of-12 on kicks of 40-49 yards. Slye has had 38 touchbacks on 58 kickoffs and averages 63.4 yards per kickoff. The kick-coverage grouping allows 21.3 yards per return, and the return unit averages 21.1 yards per return.
How This One Plays Out Matt Johns has the hot hand, but Virginia Tech is most vulnerable against the rush. Travon McMillian has the hot hand, but Virginia is most vulnerable against the pass. Does Virginia try to run or build on its recent success through the air? Does Virginia Tech open it up downfield, or force McMillian down the Cavs’ throats?
We’ll end up seeing Steve Fairchild and Scot Loeffler do what they think they do best, meaning it will come down to execution, on a day teeming with emotion. Scott Stadium, of late playing to half-capacity, will be unusually energetic with a large contingent of Tech fans in the house for Frank Beamer’s final regular-season game.
Emotion nearly carried the Hokies to what would have been a monumental upset of #12 UNC last week in Blacksburg. Is there anything left in the tank?
What about the emotion in the other locker room? Virginia could very well be playing its last game under Mike London, who likely already knows his fate, and it would be surprising if he does that his team wouldn’t also know.
Assuming, as many do, that London is done, and that everybody in the locker room knows, do his guys also come out putting everything on the line to send him out the right way?
All of this makes it hard to make a call.
In the end, I’m left to go with history. Tech has won 11 straight, and it seems that nobody on that side of the field can even fathom the possibility of coming up on the short end of the scoreboard.
The Hokies are waiting for whatever is going to happen to turn the game in their favor to happen; whereas the Cavs seem to be waiting for the big play that is going to turn things against them to rear its head.
That ends this weekend. Matt Johns, Canaan Severin and T.J. Thorpe exploit Bud Foster’s press coverages deep, opening things up for Taquan Mizzell underneath. The Hokies make a comeback in the fourth quarter behind Michael Brewer and the passing game, but the big play that has gone Tech’s way the past 11 years breaks this time for the ‘Hoos.
It has to happen eventually.
Eventually is Saturday.
Final: Virginia 34, Virginia Tech 30
– Game Preview by Chris Graham