|Hokies look to extend mastery of Virginia|
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- Virginia Tech and Virginia will square off for the 99th time Friday, playing for the Commonwealth Cup, which has been firmly in the Hokies' possession lately.
Virginia Tech, which moved back into the Associated Press poll at No. 24 this week, will be looking to make it 14 consecutive wins over the Cavaliers when the teams meet at Scott Stadium in Charlottesville.
"Just the brutal facts, it's been a long time," Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall said about the Cavaliers' losing streak to the Hokies.
Virginia (6-5, 3-4 ACC) is having its best campaign since 2011, although Mendenhall's first taste of the rivalry was a sour one a year ago as the Cavaliers got walloped in Blacksburg 52-10 to close out a 2-10 season. This year, Virginia is already bowl eligible and is looking for its first win in the series since 2003.
"I have a better understanding for almost everything about or program than I did last year," Mendenhall said. "This game is for the state championship, which deserves our best preparation and intent and practice habits and work ethic."
The Hokies (8-3, 4-3) need to beat Virginia and win their bowl game to notch their second straight 10-win season. Coach Justin Fuente, in his second season with Virginia Tech, will experience the rivalry on Virginia's home turf for the first time.
"They are a much-improved and completely different football team than we played a year ago," said Fuente. "They're scoring points and throwing the ball down the field."
Virginia Tech is one of the best defensive teams in the country, ranking sixth nationally in points allowed per game (14.7) and 17th in total defense (315.6 yards).
The Hokies' defense is led by junior linebacker Tremaine Edmunds, who has team highs with 93 tackles and 11 tackles for loss. He was selected as one of five finalists Monday for the Butkus Award, given to the nation's top linebacker.
"We have a lot of history of great defensive players and linebackers, but Tremaine deserves to be recognized for his play," Fuente said. "We forget sometimes how young he is and how far he has come in a short period of time. But he certainly deserves to be mentioned among the national elite."
Virginia will challenge that Virginia Tech defense with quarterback Kurt Benkert, who needs just 101 yards to set the school record for passing yards in a season. He has completed 265 of 439 passes for 2,876 yards, with 25 touchdowns and eight interceptions.
He threw for 384 yards and four touchdowns last week against Miami, only to the see the unbeaten Hurricanes rally for a 44-28 victory. Virginia has lost four of its previous five games but took a lot of positives from last week's game.
"We missed an opportunity against Miami, plain and simple," Benkert said. "We've got two more games ahead of us, so there's a lot more football to be played."
Despite the blowout last season in Blacksburg, Virginia had played the Hokies tough in recent years, losing the previous four games by a total of just 20 points. The Cavaliers will need to ramp up their rushing attack, which is averaging just 3.4 yards per carry.
Virginia Tech came up with a late goal-line stand to win 20-14 at Pitt last week, snapping a two-game losing streak. Redshirt freshman quarterback Josh Jackson, who was 17 of 37 passing for 218 yards against the Panthers, has been inconsistent in league play.
"He continues to improve," Fuente said. "Josh has got to focus on making the average a consistent basis. The big plays will come."
Jackson has a top target in receiver Cam Phillips (68 catches for 918 yards and seven touchdowns), but the Hokies' rushing attack, averaging 3.8 yards per carry, hasn't been great.
Virginia's standouts on defense include linebacker Micah Kiser (115 tackles, eight for loss, five sacks) and safety Quin Blanding (104 tackles, four interceptions).
"I haven't been here for 13 years so it doesn't affect me," Kiser said about the rivalry. "I'm a Maryland guy so I didn't know much about the rivalry before I got to UVA, but it has grown on me."
Virginia Tech safety Khalil Ladler summed up the feelings pretty simply Monday.
"They don't like us and we don't like them," he said.