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Loss to Virginia Tech motivating UVA defense in 2021

UVa at Virginia Tech
Photo courtesy Atlantic Coast Conference.

Sometimes a 33-15 beatdown at the hands of your in-state rival in a season finale can be a good thing.

“Yeah, so the Virginia Tech loss. That’s been my screensaver for the past couple of months,” said UVA linebacker Nick Jackson, a first-team All-ACC preseason selection.

The score doesn’t even begin to describe how thoroughly a bad Virginia Tech team dominated the Cavaliers that December night in Blacksburg.

It was 27-7 at halftime after the Hokies scored two long touchdowns – a 76-yard run by Khalil Herbert, a 60-yard TD pass from Braxton Burmeister to Tayvion Robinson – and Virginia never got back into it after the big blows.

Tech ran up 464 yards of total offense, 252 on the ground, against a Virginia defense that never did play up to expectations in 2020.

The UVA D gave up 442.9 yards per game in 2020, ranking 10th in the ACC. The 2019 unit ranked fifth in the conference on defense, giving up 371.9 yards per game, and the 2018 defense ranked third, giving up 330.5 yards per game.

You don’t want to get your hats handed to you by your rival in a finale, sure, but the 2020 ‘Hoos had already signaled that they didn’t want to play in a bowl game, so there was really nothing in terms of stakes, other than pride, for a team that was looking forward to getting out of its six months of COVID isolation.

I’ve consistently argued that the 2019 national championship doesn’t happen for UVA hoops if the 2018 loss to UMBC doesn’t happen.

Maybe that ugly L at Blacksburg serves as a similar motivating factor for Virginia Football in 2021.

“I think that in these first four practices that we’ve had, it feels it just feels so different as a defense, it feels back to normal life for us,” co-defensive coordinator Kelly Poppinga said this week. “I think there’s an energy and an edge and a hunger that our guys have that, hey, well, what we showed on the field last year was not us, that is not who we want to be as a defense. I think from what I’ve seen, what we’ve noticed as a coaching staff, it just looks and sounds and feels way better than it did a year ago.”

Poppinga credits the leadership of the unit’s super seniors – Mandy Alonso, Adeeb Atariwa, Joey Blount, Elliott Brown, De’Vante Cross and Nick Grant – with setting the tone.

“These guys that took this extra year to come back, that said, Hey, we’re coming back, because we want to leave this team better than how we left it last year, they’re trying to leave their mark on this program,” Poppinga said.

You get the sense from listening to Jackson that 33-15 left an imprint that might just have resulted in a few more sprints at the end of a conditioning session, a extra few pounds and couple of extra reps in the weight room.

“That’s been motivating me just to get better as a player and get better and help the group get better as a team,” Jackson said. “Honestly, that’s just been real motivation just for us to come out and start the season on fire and end the season on fire, because, I mean, that’s just that’s the game you circle, and that’s a that’s a feeling you never want to feel.

“In my first year, in the Virginia Tech win, I only played a couple snaps. And just for my second year, when I was playing, to feel that way after that loss, I hurt, honestly, after coming off a four-game win streak, that one hurt. So, I mean, that’s been a chip on my shoulder just the whole offseason, going through and progressing through workouts, and I’m excited to get back out there,” Jackson said.

Story by Chris Graham