Things to watch, as Tech and UVA are set for Commonwealth Clash

By Jimmy Robertson

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – Virginia Tech and Virginia square off this evening at 8 p.m. in resuming the annual Commonwealth Clash that dates back to 1895.

The No. 24 Hokies enter the game with an 8-3 record, 4-3 in the ACC and winners of 13 straight in this rivalry. Virginia comes in at 6-5, 3-4 in league play and a much-improved team from previous groups of late that have tried to break the Hokies’ dominance in the series.

Both teams locked up bowl eligibility several weeks ago, so there is little on the line other than pride – which, of course, is immense among these two fan bases.

The game kicks off at 8 and in front of a national audience watching on ESPN. Here are some things to watch:

Tech’s offense – The Hokies’ offense started great against Pittsburgh this past Saturday, scoring on its opening possession. It was a beautiful 10-play, 75 yard drive, with a nice mix of running and passing. Yet of its remaining 11 drives in the game, Tech finished by scoring a touchdown on just one – which came after a Greg Stroman interception gave it the ball at the Pittsburgh 40.

Part of what has been missing are the big plays. In the past three games, the Hokies have amassed just six plays of 20 yards or more – and only one of those resulted in a touchdown.

Can Tech get some “chunk” plays in this game? The numbers suggest that the opportunity may be there. The Cavaliers are allowing more than 28 points per game.

Quick start – Speaking of Tech’s offense, the Hokies’ touchdown on their opening possession against Pittsburgh marked just the second time this season that they have scored a touchdown on their first drive of the game (ECU). In fact, Tech has scored on its opening drive in just three games this season – but in each of the past two.

UVA’s defense, in contrast, plays pretty well at the start of the game. The Cavaliers have forced five three-and-outs in 11 opening drives, and only Boise State (touchdown) and Boston College (field goal) have scored on Virginia to start the game.

If Tech cannot score on its opening drive, it certainly enhances its chances of winning by scoring first in the game. The Hokies are 15-2 under Justin Fuente when they score first.

Greg Stroman vs. Andre Levrone – Olamide Zaccheaus leads the Cavaliers with 76 catches, but Levrone serves as their big-play threat, averaging a team-best 20.8 yards per reception and leading the team with seven touchdown receptions. His yards per reception rank second in the ACC and No. 8 nationally, and he averages 42.1 yards per touchdown reception. He leads UVA’s offense with 12 catches of 20 yards or more.

On the flip side, Stroman has enjoyed an All-ACC season, leading the Hokies in interceptions (4) and pass break-ups (11). This past Saturday, the Panthers threw at Stroman nine times, and he allowed just three catches and five yards after the catch, according to Pro Football Focus College Football.

Obviously, no one knows how defensive coordinator Bud Foster plans to use Stroman, or how Virginia plans to use Levrone within its attack. But if they are matched, the battle will be interesting – and a very important one.

The Hokies’ safeties – Tech already has lost Terrell Edmunds for the season and Mook Reynolds, who started in Edmunds’ place, was on the injury list with an illness. Reynolds’ absence would leave Foster playing his fourth different free safety this season (Edmunds, Reynolds, Divine Deablo).

Will Foster move last weekend’s hero, Reggie Floyd, to free safety and play Khalil Ladler at rover? Or play Ladler at free safety? Or work Devon Hunter into a role? Hunter, the blue-chip recruit in last February’s recruiting class, has played mostly special teams this season, but did not play this past Saturday against Pittsburgh.

The free safety spot is the most important one within Tech’s defense, and one can bet that Virginia attempts to exploit whoever plays there in this one. This will be a position to watch tonight.

Special teams – A portion of this space in previous games has been devoted to special teams, and this game is no different because of how much the Hokies need to be good in this area to win. The win over Pittsburgh serves as a perfect example, as the Hokies kept return man extraordinaire Quadree Henderson in check – and won the game.

In fact, the Hokies have allowed a combined 307 return yards on punts and kickoffs this season. That ranks as the fewest allowed by any Power 5 team. Now, Tech faces another challenge. UVA features a dangerous return man, an outstanding punter and coverage units that usually enable the Cavaliers to win the field position game.

UVA’s Joe Reed averages 28.6 yards per kickoff return, which ranks No. 1 in the ACC and No. 10 nationally, while punter Lester Coleman averages 44 yards per punt, which stands at No. 3 in the ACC and No. 19 nationally. UVA also has won the field position battle in seven of its 11 games.

Interestingly, though, the Cavaliers have attempted just 10 field goals this season, with A.J. Mejia making eight of those – and none beyond 40 yards. In a close game, this could be something to watch.

The Hokies hope to have Joey Slye back, which makes Tech’s special teams that much stronger. If the Hokies can excel in this area yet again, they stand a great chance of extending the streak to 14 in a row.

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