Virginia Virginia Tech Football

Virginia quarterback Bryce Perkins tosses a pass during the first half of a game against Virginia Tech in Blacksburg in November.

One of the defining images of last season was Virginia quarterback Bryce Perkins seated on the field in Lane Stadium, his legs extended in front of him and his helmet in his hands after losing a fumble in overtime, which sealed Virginia Tech’s 34-31 win.

The moment symbolized how far Virginia had come since going 2-10 just two years prior in head coach Bronco Mendenhall’s first season and the heartbreak that comes with being so close to the ultimate goal and watching it slip away. We wrap up our 2019 Virginia football opponent preview series with the Cavaliers’ annual contest against rival Virginia Tech on Nov. 29 in Scott Stadium.

The friendly skies

With Ryan Willis proving to be more than capable at quarterback and returning this fall with plenty of options at wide receiver and tight end, the Hokies are going to throw it around this year. Virginia Tech lost Eric Kumah (ODU) and Sean Savoy (Maryland) to the transfer portal, but last season’s leading receiver Damon Hazelton is back after earning second-team All-ACC honors with 51 catches for 802 yards and eight touchdowns.

Sophomore Tre Turner emerged as a deep threat late last fall after catching 16 passes for 326 yards and three touchdowns over the final five games of the season. Hezekiah Grimsley is back after catching 31 passes a year ago, and tight end Dalton Keene returns after hauling in 28. Sophomore tight end James Mitchell looks poised for a breakout season.

Can the defense improve?

The defense was very un-Virginia Tech like last season, allowing more points (31 ppg) and yards (438.7 ypg) and registering the fewest sacks and interceptions of any of longtime defensive coordinator Bud Foster’s previous 23 years.

That may have played a role in Foster’s announcement earlier this month that this season will be his last, and with nine freshmen and sophomores playing significant roles last year, the unit should be much improved for his last ride.

The Hokies have to replace top defensive lineman Ricky Walker, but the strength of the unit is up the middle, where inside linebacker Rayshard Ashby will roam again after leading the team with 105 tackles.

Behind him, safeties Reggie Floyd finished second with 88 tackles, Khalili Ladler was third with 66 and Divine Deablo is 6-foot-3 and 223 pounds and may already be one of the ACC’s hardest hitters. All three are back, along with starting cornerback Caleb Farley.

Virginia Tech is expecting immediate contributions from junior college transfers DaShawn Crawford, a defensive tackle, and Jeremy Webb, a 6-4 corner who missed last season after tearing his Achilles tendon in the spring. Trevon Hill transferred to Miami and fellow pass-rushing defensive end Houshun Gaines won’t play this season after his mother died early last year and he tore his ACL in November. The Hokies are going to have to rely on ends TyJuan Garbutt and Emmanuel Belmar and outside linebacker Dax Hollifield to produce a pass rush.

Game-deciding matchup

The Hokies have questions in the backfield but the cupboard isn’t bare. Leading rusher Steven Peoples is gone, and it looks like Tech will turn to juniors Jalen Holston and Deshawn McClease. McLease is the shiftier of the two, and he was second on the team last fall with 433 yards and two touchdowns.

Holston is more of a power back, and he carried the ball 57 times last year. Virginia’s defenders are already going to have their hands full with what looks like a powerful passing attack, but as is the Cavaliers’ mantra this season, they’re going to have to stop the run first.

Series

Virginia trails the all-time series 37-58-5. The Cavaliers’ last beat the Hokies in 2003 in a 35-21 victory at Scott Stadium. Virginia Tech has won 15 straight.

Relevance

Their “Beat Tech” rallying cry has been getting more attention the past couple of seasons, but the Commonwealth Clash is always on the Cavaliers’ minds. Successful seasons in Charlottesville are measured by this game, and with as close as UVa came to winning it last fall, the Wahoos have to be chomping at the bit for another shot.

The game could very well have postseason implications, too. The Cavaliers and Hokies should both be competitive in the Coastal Division, and it may decide the champion.

With neither team’s schedule looking all that scary, both may also be looking to boost their bowl resume with a ninth or 10th win.

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