CHARLOTTESVIILLE—Of all the pertinent numbers surrounding Virginia’s cathartic, streak-ending 39–30 victory over Virginia Tech (and there were many), the most important was the row of zeroes on the clock in the Cavaliers’ locker room.
Since Bronco Mendenhall arrived as coach four years ago, that timepiece has counted down the months, days, hours, minutes and seconds until the Cavaliers got their annual chance to challenge the Hokies’ unquestioned status as state kingpin. The clock froze on Friday afternoon, with the zeroes replacing the null set of wins Virginia had managed over its rival in the past decade and a half.
“Last time we beat Virginia Tech, I was 7 years old,” said senior defensive end Eli Hanback, who wasn’t on that 2003 team, “and I’m 23 now.”
So as the Cavalier faithful swarmed the field at Scott Stadium, they had plenty to celebrate: the school’s first Atlantic Coast Conference Coastal Division title, a spot in next Saturday’s ACC title game and possession of the Commonwealth Cup for the first time since flip phones were in style.
But for a day, at least, the biggest thing was zero difference (in the Cavaliers’ minds, at least) between their program and the Hokies’.
“The quality of their program has helped us improve our program,” Mendenhall said. “... You can’t build a consistent conference or national contender unless you own your state.”
And for 15 straight years, the Hokies did that—often by large margins (52–14 in 2005, 42–13 in ’09, 52–10 in 2016, Mendenhall’s first season). There were also heartbreakers, like Tech’s 34–31 overtime victory last year.
“It’s the most challenging thing I’ve ever taken on,” Mendenhall said of Virginia’s rebuilding efforts. “Four years feels like a long time to me. For those [at U.Va.] who had had it be 15 years, it’d hard to imagine. ... I could see [the joy] and feel it, but the magnitude, I don’t think I can grasp right now.”
Like most significant accomplishments, this one didn’t come easily. After dominating the first half but taking a scant 13–6 lead into the locker room, the Cavaliers gave up three third-quarter touchdowns to the Hokies.
Fortunately for the home fans, senior quarterback Bryce Perkins saved his most incandescent performance for his last home appearance. Three times he brought the Cavaliers back from second-half deficits, four days after having his tonsils drained.
“I don’t think there’s anything he can’t do,” Mendenhall.
And Virginia’s defense went from sieve to superb in the final minutes, posting three straight sacks of Hendon Hookier, who had been nearly as elusive as Perkins in the second half. On the third, Mandy Alonso separated Hooker from the ball, and Hanback fell on it for the game-clinching touchdown.
“We got in a situation at the end of the game where everyone knows we have to throw the ball,” Tech coach Justin Fuente said, “and that’s not our strength.”
Friday’s result doesn’t guarantee that the Cavaliers will suddenly become kings of the Commonwealth. The Hokies didn’t have a single senior in their starting lineup Friday.
And Virginia must find a way to reinvent its offense without Perkins, who accounted for an astounding 475 (311 passing, 164 rushing) of their 492 total yards. (Said Mendenhall: “I think Bryce Perkins changes the face of U.Va. football. This era certainly doesn’t happen without him at quarterback.”)
After the ACC final and a bowl game, the Cavaliers will also say farewell to Hanback, who started his 50th consecutive game Friday and has been Mendenhall’s poster boy for his “earned, not given” approach to resurrecting a once-downtrodden program.
“A really nice culmination,” Hanback said of his Senior Day TD.
Virginia loses senior linebacker Jordan Mack and top receiver Hasise Dubois, too. But the Cavaliers overcame a season-ending injury to preseason all-ACC cornerback Bryce Hall to win the division. And with 17 potential returning starters, Mendenhall will do more reloading than rebuilding in 2020.
But this now figures to be a rivalry that should bring out the best in both schools.
“Every time we’d play them, we’d lose,” said Alonso, who admitted that beating the Hokies was as much a mental hurdle as a physical one. “Now that we’ve gotten over that, who knows where this team goes now?”