Last week before taking on North Carolina, Virginia Tech Coach Frank Beamer stood in front of his team and listed the various accomplishments that were on the table for these Hokies as they prepared for the stretch run of their season. It was much more than simply the fact that Virginia Tech has an outside shot at making the BCS championship game if it wins out and things fall right around the rest of the country.
With two more wins, the Hokies could finish with the most single-season wins in school history. This year’s seniors are two wins from becoming the winningest class in school history. Virginia Tech is also in the running to have its highest-ever finish in the AP poll and BCS standings, and could finish within the top 10 for the sixth time in eight years.
None of that matters, though, if Virginia Tech loses on Saturday to Virginia for the first time since 2003, and the Hokies’ preparation this week has reflected that. Whoever wins this year’s battle for the Commonwealth Cup will take the ACC’s Coastal Division title and move on to face Clemson in next week’s league championship game in Charlotte.
“There’s some good things out there, things that’s never been done before at Virginia Tech that can be accomplished, but after that, the only thing that affects any of this — any of this — is how we prepare today and how we play on Saturday,” Beamer said. “You can’t control who beats who out there and who’s voting for who in the BCS. You can’t control that, but what you can control is how you play, and that in effect controls the other things.”
The good news for the Hokies is that they’ll likely have both linebacker Alonzo Tweedy and center Andrew Miller available because neither were listed on the team’s injury report Thursday. We also have a poll over on our Virginia blog, Cavaliers Journal, where you can vote on whom you think will win the Commonwealth Cup.
After the jump, I’ll have a few keys to the game as well as my own score prediction.
Logan Thomas vs. Michael Rocco
These two Lynchburg, Va., quarterbacks never faced each other in high school (Thomas went to public school; Rocco played for a private school), which puts their battle Saturday in an even bigger spotlight. Thomas has come into his own of late, becoming the Hokies’ most valuable offensive weapon with 20 total touchdowns and just two interceptions since Virginia Tech’s only loss of the year against Clemson. Virginia Tech will need the redshirt sophomore to be at his best again – both throwing the ball and running it -- against a Cavaliers defense that’s much improved this year and features an all-ACC performer in cornerback Chase Minnifield. Rocco, meanwhile, has been at the forefront of the Cavaliers’ resurgence over the past month, avoiding turnovers and extending plays once Coach Mike London decided to ditch the two-quarterback system he used earlier in the year. Thomas must outplay Rocco for the Hokies to prevail in this one, but Rocco doesn’t necessarily have to out-duel his counterpart if he can avoid interceptions against a Bud Foster defense that will almost certainly dial up various blitz packages.
Controlling Virginia’s running backs
Foster said this week the most dynamic part of the Cavaliers’ offense is their trio of running backs — starter Perry Jones and freshmen Kevin Parks and Clifton Richardson. The 5-foot-8 Jones leads the team with 870 rushing yards and 41 catches this year, and it will fall on the shoulders of Hokies linebackers Tariq Edwards and Jack Tyler to corral him when he runs routes into open space. Last week, the Cavaliers struggled to run the ball against Florida State, but it became a moot point when Jones caught nine passes for 62 yards and a touchdown out of the backfield. If the Hokies can eliminate Rocco’s security blanket, perhaps the quarterback will try to force some throws down the field – exactly the sort of thing Virginia Tech’s secondary is hoping for.
The red zone
For all the prolific numbers Virginia Tech’s offensive stars have put up this year – Thomas is on pace to break the school’s record for total offense, while running back David Wilson is third in the country in rushing and is well on his way to breaking Ryan Williams’s single-season rushing record – the Hokies’ weak point has been their inability to score touchdowns in the red zone. Virginia Tech has scored touchdowns on only 31 of its 57 trips inside an opponent’s 20-yard-line (ranking 99th nationally). Virginia’s defense, on the other hand, has seen its greatest improvements defensively come from its stinginess in the red zone, where it ranks fifth in the country overall because teams have scored touchdowns just 46 percent of the time. Virginia Tech’s defense isn’t far behind, ranking No. 9 in terms of red zone defense. Whichever team can break through those trends will likely come out on top in this one.
Virginia has certainly had a nice run here in the last month, and it seems the Cavaliers have righted the ship. But Virginia has been thriving of late by relying on a strong front seven on defense and a time-consuming, physical offense that doesn’t turn over the ball. I don’t think it will work against Beamer and the Hokies, who have used that formula for success better than anyone in the ACC. The Commonwealth Cup stays in Blacksburg for an eighth straight year.
My prediction: Virginia Tech 28, Virginia 17