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Tony Elliott, with clean slate in UVA-Tech rivalry, looks to build on late-season momentum

Chris Graham
tony elliott miami
Photo: UVA Athletics

Tony Elliott has a clean slate with Virginia Tech as the head coach at Virginia, which in the UVA-Tech series gives him a leg up, given how things have gone over the past, oh, couple of decades.

Al Groh beat Tech once in nine tries.

Mike London went 0-for-6.

Bronco Mendenhall was 1-5.

Elliott is 0-0 going into Saturday, and it has to help that his staff doesn’t have much experience in the game.

There are two guys – Chris Slade, the defensive ends coach, was 3-1 as a player in the rivalry between 1989-1992, and Clint Sintim, the linebackers coach, well, he was 0-4 as a player between 2005-2008, and he was 0-2 as a member of Mendenhall’s staff in 2020 and 2021.

Other than that, the coaches are new to this, and most of the key guys on the two-deep are also relatively fresh rivalry-wise.

I bring that up because it seemed to me, for many years into what became the 15-year losing streak, from 2004-2018, that the guys on the Virginia sideline came to expect things to turn sour at some point during the annual Tech game, either early on, heading towards a blowout loss, or late-game, to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

There were lopsided losses 52-14 in 2005, 42-13 in 2009, 37-7 in 2010, 38-0 in 2011, 52-10 in 2016 – but there were also a pair of 17-14 games (2008, 2012), 24-20 and 23-20 (2014 and 2015), the 34-31 OT loss in 2018 that I’m still shaking my head at, and the 29-24 loss that preceded Mendenhall’s shock resignation (2021).

I’d say, don’t know which is worse, having your lunch money stolen, or losing on a fumble in OT, or a pass to an offensive lineman in the red zone that, surprise, didn’t work.

Truth is, it all hurts, when it’s the rival.

“I was part of a very intense rivalry, and there was a time we lost several games in a row, and after looking back at it, a lot was, we put too much emphasis on it,” said Elliott, who came to Virginia after from Clemson, which, hard as it is to believe now, had a five-year losing streak to South Carolina, from 2009-2013.

What Elliott is trying to do is “balance it.”

“I think we all know the implications, that is this 365 days. However, you have to work towards each opponent as you play those opponents. For me, the approach I’m trying to get everybody to understand is that every game is the most important game of the season, and then when you get to this game, now here is the significance around this game,” Elliott told reporters at his weekly press conference on Tuesday.

And there’s plenty of significance to this game for Virginia, which is sitting at, yes, 3-8 with the one game left on the schedule, but it’s a 3-8 that feels different than the record might seem to suggest.

UVA lost its first five games before finally getting its first win, a 27-13 W over William & Mary on Oct. 7, before a bye week.

Virginia came out of the bye with a 31-27 upset of then-#10 North Carolina, played tough in a 29-26 OT loss at Miami in which the Cavaliers outplayed the ‘Canes, but couldn’t get out of their own way on a handful of key plays, led in the fourth quarter in a 31-24 loss at Top 10 Louisville, then pulled another upset, 30-27, over Duke last weekend in Charlottesville.

That comes to 3-3 in the past six games, with a couple of tough losses in games that Virginia very well could have won.

Then there were a couple of others in the first half – a blown 11-point fourth quarter lead in a 36-35 loss to JMU in Week 2, a blown 14-point halftime lead in a 27-24 loss to Boston College in Week 5 – that you could put in the what-if category.

It feels like there’s something to build on moving forward.

A win over the in-state rival would be a huge step forward.

“It 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.

The biggest impact would be on recruiting – which in this day and age is three-fold.

Coaches used to just have to worry about finalizing their prep-recruiting class as the season was coming to an end, but with the transfer portal, you’re looking to see who’s out there and might be a fit with what you’re trying to do, and also making sure that the guys you have in your locker room aren’t looking for opportunities somewhere else.

A win on Saturday would send the kids home with two straight W’s, give them a 4-3 record in October and November, and three of the wins would be over the school’s biggest rivals – UNC, Duke and Virginia Tech.

That’s as close to Era of Good Feelings as you could get for a team that would finish 4-8.

The flip side of this, and there’s always a flip side – a loss akin to the 45-17 stinker with Georgia Tech from a few weeks back could get the fan base wondering aloud about the future with Elliott, maybe some of the alums start having trouble finding their checkbooks, and get a few of the kids might start wondering about their next steps after final exams.

“Trying not to put undue pressure on the guys, because at the end of the day you got to prepare the same way that you prepared for other games,” Elliott said. “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.”

To be fully transparent, the guys on the other sideline have similar issues coming in.

Brent Pry is, like Elliott, in Year 2, and like Elliott, he won three games last year, though his Hokies are 5-6 with Saturday left on the schedule, thus still in bowl contention.

The bowl would be icing on the cake for Pry; the bigger prize is beating the in-state rival.

“It’s an opportunity for both of us,” Elliott said. “We’re battling and jockeying to say this is our state. He’s saying that they want to own the state. We want to own the state. That’s what happens when you have a rivalry.”

Them’s the stakes.

“Going to be big, because it’s the first time that we get to show and prove, we get to talk about we want to recruit the best players in the state, take ownership of the state. Now we get a chance to settle it on the field,” Elliott said.

Chris Graham

Chris Graham

Chris Graham, the king of "fringe media," is the founder and editor of Augusta Free Press. A 1994 alum of the University of Virginia, Chris is the author and co-author of seven books, including Poverty of Imagination, a memoir published in 2019, and Team of Destiny: Inside Virginia Basketball’s Run to the 2019 National Championship, and The Worst Wrestling Pay-Per-View Ever, published in 2018. For his commentaries on news, sports and politics, go to his YouTube page, or subscribe to his Street Knowledge podcast. Email Chris at [email protected].