Takeaways from Tech's win over UVA to retain Commonwealth Cup

By Jimmy Robertson

BLACKSBURG – The Virginia Tech football program wrapped up the 2017 regular season in the best of ways by shutting out rival Virginia 10-0 in the Commonwealth Clash held in Charlottesville this year.

The Hokies knocked off their rivals for the 14th straight time, and as the seconds wound down, they started drinking Gatorade out the Commonwealth Cup, the trophy which goes to the victors in the game and which will stay in Blacksburg for another 365 days.

The win left Tech with a 9-3 record, 5-3 in the ACC. They also moved up a couple of spots in The Associated Press top 25 poll to No. 22. It’s been a fine season for a team with a freshman quarterback, young receivers and trying to fight through a boatload of injuries down the stretch.

After Tech’s loss to Miami earlier this month eliminated their chances of winning the Coastal Division and making a return to the ACC Championship Game, head coach Justin Fuente told his team that there was still plenty to play for at that point.

He wanted to see his team send the seniors out with a win on Senior Day.


He wanted to see his team extend the program’s dominance over UVA.


Now, all that remains left to for this season is to win the bowl game and capture that 10th win, which often defines a program’s excellence.

There will be more on that game in due time. As for the time being, Tech fans still are reveling in the win over UVA, and here are some takeaways from the Hokies’ performance:

Defensive line domination – Without question, the story of the game was the domination by Tech’s defensive front. The Hokies’ group of Tim Settle, Ricky Walker, Houshun Gaines, Trevon Hill, Emmanuel Belmar and Xavier Burke simply thwarted UVA’s running game, holding the Cavaliers to just 5 yards and to less than a yard per carry on 20 carries.

Perhaps more surprising, they got pressure on UVA quarterback Kurt Benkert, combining for two of the Hokies’ four sacks. Tech went into the game with just 25 sacks on the season.

Tech’s defensive line combined for 13 tackles, including four for a loss, and two sacks against the Cavaliers. That’s solid production, especially considering that Gaines and Belmar were making their first career starts because of injuries to Vinny Mihota (out for the season) and Hill (who played vs. UVA).

“We were able to get a couple of sacks and get some really good pressure and make him [Benkert] move,” defensive coordinator Bud Foster said. “He’s a guy that’s been very, very hot, and they’ve got a good group of receivers, but obviously, getting them where they’ve got a lot of long yardage plays – and a lot of that goes back to those guys up front and being able to put pressure on the quarterback.”

Also, keep in mind this: the defensive line kept UVA’s offensive line tied up, which freed Tremaine Edmunds to go and make a ton of plays. Edmunds finished with nine tackles, including three for a loss and two sacks, and a lot of that production came because he wasn’t dealing with blockers.

Secondary was outstanding – Not to be outdone by the defensive line, Tech’s secondary played a fantastic game against UVA. Tech’s coaches went into this game concerned about UVA’s ability to make big plays in the passing game, but the Cavaliers finished with just three passing plays of more than 20 yards. One of those came on a 51-yard pass play from Benkert to receiver Andre Levrone – a ball that Greg Stroman should have intercepted, and he’d probably be the first to say that.

UVA inexplicably tried to test Stroman, arguably the Hokies’ best defensive back, early in the game to no avail, and the corner on the opposite side, Brandon Facyson, played lockdown coverage as well. Tech’s safeties also played well, as Reggie Floyd made the biggest play in the game for the second straight week. His forced fumble on UVA’s first possession of the second half led to Tech’s lone touchdown.

Khalil Ladler made his first start and finished with four tackles. Interestingly, UVA did not seem to try to attack Ladler other than maybe a seam route to Joe Reed on its second possession of the game that netted 23 yards – and even that may not have been Ladler’s responsibility.

Overall, Tech’s secondary did a really nice job of not getting beat by the big play.

Second-half drive – Tech’s offense put together a terrific drive toward the end of the third quarter and into the fourth quarter – one certainly worth mentioning. The Hokies led 10-0 and proceeded to march 66 yards in 16 plays, but more importantly, they chewed more than eight minutes off the clock, leaving UVA no more than two opportunities to get back in the game.

The big play in the drive came on fourth-and-2 from the UVA 32 when Fuente elected to go for it. Rather that call for a running play, offensive coordinator Brad Cornelsen elected to call for a passing play in which Josh Jackson hit Eric Kumah on a crossing route for a first down. The call was a bold one, and it worked out.

Unfortunately, the drive ended without any points, as Brian Johnson missed a 32-yard field goal. You’ve simply got to make that field goal in that situation – that is Tech’s fourth missed field goal of less than 40 yards this season – especially after the work put in by the offense. Fortunately, UVA couldn’t take advantage against Tech’s defense.

Peoples a difference maker – Fuente lamented the missed games by tailback Steven Peoples, who had sat out six games this season with an injury. Now, everyone knows why after Peoples, a 220-pounder, bulled his way to 71 yards on a team-best 22 carries. The performance marked the best of his career, and it came at a perfect time.

Peoples runs downhill, and he knows how to fall forward for an extra couple yards. Two of his carries on that long second-half drive resulted in first downs. He didn’t necessarily break a long one against the Cavaliers, but he kept the chains moving.

Behind him, the Hokies rushed for 202 yards against the Cavaliers and held the ball for more than 37 minutes. Tech moved to 9-0 under Fuente when rushing for 200 yards in a game.

“It was nice to have Steven back,” Fuente said. “Obviously, you know how we feel about him. When he is healthy, he gets out there and gets carries because he does run hard and tough, and Deshawn [McClease] was a nice little mix-up in there, with speed and quickness. So it was good to run the ball a little bit.”

Grimsley an unsung hero – Tech relied on a lot of unfamiliar faces in the win over the Cavaliers – Ladler, Gaines, Belmar, etc. – but none more unfamiliar than receiver Hezekiah Grimsley, who played a major role despite entering the game with all of two catches on the season.

Yet the freshman showed that the moment wasn’t too big for him. He made his first career start, and he finished with a team-best five catches for 56 yards. None was better than his leaping 25-yard reception early in the third quarter that set up the Hokies’ lone touchdown. That catch was as good as it gets.

Fuente said that he and the staff initially wanted to redshirt Grimsley, but Tech’s lack of depth at receiver forced his hand. Then he moved Grimsley to the slot receiver spot several weeks ago, and it took time for Grimsley to learn the new position. Yet Saturday night, he was able to show his full potential.

“That’s a long way of saying, yes, we have seen those things,” Fuente said of the catch. “We just haven’t been able to produce them on the field for a variety of different reasons, and one is that he’s a true freshman. But he’s a great worker, and it was really good to see him make some plays.”

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