Virginia wide receivers coach Shawn Moore heard this week that a Virginia Tech player said the Cavaliers haven’t been relevant in a long time, and it didn’t make sense for Moore to be stung by that comment because he realized it was true.
The Cavaliers combined record from 2008-10: 12-24.
The last time Virginia claimed the Commonwealth Cup: 2003.
The last time the Cavaliers played in the ACC championship game: Never happened.
Meantime, the Hokies have won four of the past seven ACC titles. They’ve been relevant for a while now, and Moore is well aware of that. But he says he also knows something else, and he’s hoping Virginia (8-3, 5-2 ACC) can make his point for him Saturday when it hosts Virginia Tech (10-1, 6-1) with a berth in the conference championship game on the line.
“This is a new era, a different football team than even the one last year; it’s a different team from the one three years ago,” Moore said in a telephone interview Wednesday. “We are relevant now, and hopefully this game will mean something every year from here on out.”
This game, known as the Commonwealth Cup, hasn’t meant much in quite some time. Virginia Tech has won 11 of its past 12 meetings against Virginia. And that fact has been hard for former Cavaliers such as Chris Slade (1989-92) to swallow, especially since Virginia beat the Hokies in three out of his four seasons on campus. He said if the Cavaliers were to win Saturday, it would be “almost a sigh of relief.”
“In the past it’s always been it’s the Commonwealth Cup, it’s Virginia against Virginia Tech, whoop-dee-do,” said Slade, who is now a sideline reporter for the program’s radio broadcast team. “We were kind of irrelevant for the past 10 years. We haven’t won in Blacksburg since ’98 and hadn’t won a game in this series since 2003. So it hasn’t been much of a rivalry lately. Virginia Tech has dominated it since they’ve been in the ACC.”
This year, Slade and other Virginia followers have reason to believe the outcome of the Commonwealth Cup might be different. The Cavaliers’ defense has made considerable strides from last season, when the team went 4-8 during Coach Mike London’s first season at the helm. And the offense has settled into a groove since London ditched a two-quarterback rotation in favor of handing the reins solely to sophomore quarterback Michael Rocco.
As ESPN college football analyst Rod Gilmore said in a telephone interview Wednesday, “The more I watch [the Cavaliers] on tape, the more I think they’re better than people in the country realize.”
Gilmore, who will call Saturday’s Virginia-Virginia Tech game, said that from the game film he’s watched on the Cavaliers, it’s apparent their defense has “jelled” in the past month or so.
“It just looks like everybody is where they’re supposed to be,” Gilmore said. “You don’t see blown assignments. And I guess this isn’t all that surprising. You’ve got a lot of guys that played a lot of football, but they started learning a new system last year, and it just seems like at some point this season, it kind of all came together that they kind of got comfortable with it, and they started playing faster.
“They knew where they were supposed to be. They weren’t making as many mistakes. They just look cleaner, neater, defensively.”
During that same period, Gilmore said, Rocco appeared to grow more at ease under center. The quarterback has thrown seven touchdowns and one interception during Virginia’s current four-game win streak.
“It just seems like a much more comfortable, mature, settled team now than they were back in September and early October,” Gilmore said.
Gilmore admitted that in August he pegged Virginia as “a six-win team, a bowl-eligible team.” He certainly was not alone in that regard.
But in retrospect, Gilmore said, he understands exactly why the Cavaliers have been able to develop as rapidly as they have. For starters, their foundation lies in a strong stable of experienced upperclassmen. Gilmore noted he’s been particularly impressed by senior defensive end Cam Johnson, fifth-year senior defensive tackles Nick Jenkins and Matt Conrath, junior middle linebacker Steve Greer and senior cornerback Chase Minnifield.
And then there’s London, whom Gilmore said he’s followed since the coach’s days in charge at Richmond in the Football Championship Subdivision.
“I knew what kind of approach and what kind of a players coach he can be and how really involved he gets in the lives of the players,” Gilmore said. “And I thought once he won those guys over and they bought into his system that they would get better. But who could have figured that at this point they would have beaten Florida State and Miami on the road, that they would have won four games late in the fourth quarter, almost the last play? I mean, you can’t predict that kind of stuff.”
Moore – who quarterbacked the Cavaliers from 1987 to ’90 – is confident that one day in the near future, observers far and wide will come to expect and predict such accomplishments from and for Virginia. Until then, he and Slade will settle for an upset victory over Virginia Tech on Saturday.
“If Virginia wins on Saturday, you’ve got to give serious consideration to Mike London, not for ACC coach of the year, but for national coach of the year,” Slade said. A win over the Hokies “just gives the program that much more credibility.”