BLACKSBURG, Va. — Virginia Tech linebacker Bruce Taylor didn’t like what he saw Monday during practice.
The Hokies looked sluggish and out of sync, and their senior captain immediately assumed it was the sort of complacency born from the team’s recent dominance of the Commonwealth Cup, which has been displayed in a prominent location during the week leading into Virginia Tech’s annual game against Virginia. After all, there’s a piece of paper attached to the trophy reminding the Hokies that they will have possessed it for 2,917 consecutive days when these two in-state rivals face off again Saturday afternoon.
So Taylor began reminding his teammates how this could be his last game at Virginia Tech, and that the Hokies (5-6, 3-4 ACC) will need a ninth consecutive victory over the Cavaliers (4-7, 2-5) to reach bowl eligibility in the program’s worst season in 20 years. By Tuesday, it was clear the message had gotten through.
“I don’t want to be part of the team that ends the bowl streak,” freshman running back J.C. Coleman told reporters. “And we already lost [the team’s eight-year streak of 10-win seasons], but I don’t want to be part of the team that loses to U-Va. after we beat them, what, eight times in a row? I don’t want to be part of that team or part of the team that doesn’t go to the bowl and everything else. It’s a lot of pressure.”
The feeling is mutual. A year after the Commonwealth Cup game carried higher stakes than ever, with the winner advancing to the ACC championship game, this season’s battle is more about salvaging seasons that haven’t gone as planned. But it doesn’t mean there isn’t anything to play for.
With its postseason dreams over after last week’s loss to North Carolina, Virginia is treating this latest clash with Virginia Tech as its bowl game, and ending the Hokies’ 19-year run of bowl appearances would equate to some post-Thanksgiving gravy.
But to do so, the Cavaliers will have to overcome some Commonwealth Cup demons that have piled up over the past decade. Virginia has lost eight games in a row and 12 of the past 13 to Virginia Tech, and last year’s 38-0 Hokies victory at Scott Stadium might have been the most demoralizing given the Cavaliers’ ACC title hopes.
Coach Mike London said there is no mental hurdle Virginia needs to overcome, but he has maintained an even more optimistic disposition than normal this week, given recent history. Since taking over the program in 2010, he has made in-roads against Virginia Tech on the recruiting trail, but on the field London hasn’t come close to beating the Hokies.
The past two years, the Cavaliers have lost by a combined score of 75-7, and as quarterback Phillip Sims put it: “The streak is there. You know about it. Everybody knows about it.”
“You get frustrated about a lot of things but this is another game, another opportunity to change the fortunes of that,” London said. “We have to play probably our best football to date for anything like that to change.”
For Virginia Tech Coach Frank Beamer, this week has been about emphasizing one slogan: “I’ve never been to a bad bowl game.”
The Hokies finally broke through with a victory last week — albeit in overtime against a nine-loss Boston College team — after five losses in six games guaranteed that this season will be remembered as a disappointing one. But continuing a bowl streak that has now spanned three decades, even if it’s in a lower-tier bowl game, remains the one thing separating Virginia Tech from an offseason to reflect on all that went wrong for Beamer and company this season.
Representatives from five bowl games (Chick-fil-A, Russell Athletic, Sun Belk and Military) will all be in attendance to catch a final glimpse of Virginia Tech.
But with no championship stakes, this Commonwealth Cup will feature intensity that comes from a rivalry ingrained in many of these players at an early age. Both Virginia and Virginia Tech will use at least 20 players Saturday from the state of Virginia, and as Hokies linebacker Jack Tyler noted, they’ve been compared against one another since the moment they committed to their respective school.
Even more important: A victory Saturday would salve some wounds for either team.
“Just to keep going 20 straight years of bowl games would just be great [and] to say we were the year that messed it up and didn’t make it, that’s horrible,” said Virginia Tech running back Martin Scales, who hails from Martinsville, Va. “I’m happy to go to a bowl, but I’d just love to beat U-Va. Because that’s our big rival, and you just always want to beat them.”
GOING STREAKING: A year after Virginia and Virginia Tech met with a spot in the ACC championship game on the line, the two in-state rivals face off with two significant streaks hanging in the balance. After beating Boston College last week to end a three-game losing streak, the Hokies must win Saturday to qualify for a 20th straight bowl game. The Cavaliers, meanwhile, are in the midst of an eight-game losing skid against Virginia Tech that dates from 2004. During the 117-year history of this rivalry, no team has won nine straight games.
BATTLE IN THE TRENCHES: Virginia Tech’s defense has surged in recent weeks behind a front seven that has 22 sacks over the past five games. The good news is that the Cavaliers listed right tackle Morgan Moses as probable after he suffered a leg injury in Virginia’s loss to North Carolina last week. For Virginia’s defense, its best performance of the year came when it sacked North Carolina State quarterback Mike Glennon six times earlier this month. But the Cavaliers have just eight sacks in their 10 other games.
QB PICK-OFF: One of the underlying reasons why both Virginia Tech and Virginia have struggled at times this year is a propensity for turnovers. Hokies quarterback Logan Thomas has thrown 14 interceptions this year, while Virginia signal callers Michael Rocco and Phillip Sims have combined for 13. Virginia Tech has lost the turnover battle in all six of its losses this year, while Virginia has just one victory when committing more turnovers. Whoever wins the giveaway battle Saturday will likely come out on top.