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The Defining Five: UVA

By Grant Mitchell | December 14
Screen Shot 2020 12 13 at 6 17 06 PM
Photo: Virginia Tech Athletics

The Virginia Tech Hokies defeated the University of Virginia Cavaliers in Blacksburg Saturday evening, 33-15.

This game juxtaposed two programs headed in opposite directions: Virginia Tech had dropped four straight while UVA were victors in four successive contests prior to the December showdown.

The Cavaliers entered the ballgame with hopes of retaining the coveted Commonwealth Cup for the second consecutive year whereas the Hokies had their eyes set on regaining a trophy they had grown used to possessing, having won every matchup against their archrivals from 2004-2018.

Quarterback Braxton Burmeister was preferred to Hendon Hooker, starter of the seven games prior, in the VT lineup. This pivot indicated Justin Fuente’s desire to run the ball against a Cavalier defense that had only surrendered 125.9 yards per game on the ground, meaning that the Hokies were willing to fight strength with strength.

The switch to Burmeister ended up paying dividends as the Junior transfer from Oregon amassed 212 yards through the air and 36 rushing yards along with one beautiful touchdown pass. The QB’s performance was so exceptional that he earned a special shoutout from Pro Football Focus College.

While Burmeister was busy airing the ball out, Khalil Herbert was pounding the UVA defense into submission. The Heisman candidate added to his stellar campaign via 162 yards and a touchdown while the off-speed pitch that is Jalen Holston totaled 58 hard-earned yards on 14 carries. The Hokie backs proved too fast and powerful for their opposing defenders, demoralizing them with first down pickups, escaped tackles and hard-nosed running.

Not to be overlooked, the VT defense matched the intensity of their offense as Justin Hamilton’s crew turned in another impressive performance. Divine Deablo brought energy to the secondary while Amare Barno and the big men up front wreaked havoc on the Cavalier blockers, creating an unwinnable situation for the visitors. Hamilton’s unit improved every week of the Hokies’ season, and the young coordinator is proving to be a valuable commodity moving forward.

Just like in weekends prior, the story of Saturday’s events can be told through five key plays. Here are those five:

13:58 left in the first quarter

On the third play of the game, Khalil Herbert took an inside zone for a 39-yard gain before being stopped at the UVA 28 yard-line. Herbert demonstrated nice footwork, tiptoeing through the lineman then accelerating past the secondary to get the ball down near the red zone.

What made this play special, though, was not the execution of the run. Rather than easily stepping out of bounds as the UVA defenders ushered him towards the sideline, Herbert stopped in his tracks to throw a stiff-arm right into the face of UVA Free Safety Da’Vante Cross. Though Herbert was unable to shake free, his cold-hearted intensity was rewarded by a swarm of Tech players and coaches slapping his helmet and cheering his determination.

Kicker Brian Johnson later capped off the Hokies’ drive with a 46-yard field goal, giving Virginia Tech the first points of the evening.

3-0 Hokies.

4:32 left in the second quarter

Immediately after a James Mitchell fair catch gave the Hokies the ball on their own 24, Khalil Herbert took a halfback dive right up the gut for a 76-yard score. Brock Hoffman and Lecitus Smith were responsible for creating the gaping hole in the A gap that Herbert exploded through on his way to the pylons.

After passing the line of scrimmage, “Juice” managed to split the middle of the field before the UVA defenders could converge on him, going untouched on his season-long score and putting the Hokies ahead by 13 points.

Herbert demonstrated his elite speed as a big back on this play, something NFL scouts will be sure to take note of. Though the Senior back receives frequent comparisons to Le’Veon Bell for his patient footwork, bursts like these resemble Adrian Peterson’s Oklahoma days.

This play demonstrated the suddenness of the Hokie offense and caught their opponents off guard following a 17 play, 75-yard drive on their first touchdown of the game.

20-7 Hokies.

0:42 left in the second quarter

Facing a fleeting game clock, Braxton Burmeister hit Tayvion Robinson on an out route that the Sophomore receiver took for a 60-yard house call.

After making a routine catch, Robinson darted towards the sidelines to get out of bounds and stop the clock. However, Da’Vante Cross, victimized by Khalil Herbert’s early stiff-arm, made a very feeble attempt at tackling Robinson. The ever-dependable Hokie receiver broke the safety’s half-hearted attempt and cut up field, finding an open highway of green turf leading directly to the end zone.

This catch marked Robinson’s fourth game with a reception over 40 yards this season. The Virginia Beach native has proven himself as a constant threat and will be an integral part of the VT offense next season.

Whether Herbert’s power move on the first drive affected the confidence of Cross can be left to speculation: what is assured is that the Cavaliers’ defense cracked on another huge play and allowed the deficit to expand to 20 points just before halftime.

27-7 Hokies.

0:55 left in the third quarter

After leading a touchdown drive earlier in the quarter, UVA QB Brennan Armstrong threw an interception right to Tech’s Dorian Strong, giving the ball back to the clock-chewing VT running game. The pass had been intended for receiver Lavel Davis Jr., though there was a definite miscommunication between him and his quarterback.

Armstrong’s pass travelled directly to Strong, who had been standing stationary in his assigned zone, and was then returned 27 yards to the UVA 39. This was Strong’s only interception of the season, though the true Freshman has been lockdown in coverage and is guaranteed a larger role next year.

The UVA passing attack had been stymied by the VT front all night as constant pressure had knocked Armstrong off of his spots and the offensive line surrendered four sacks after allowing an FBS-low 16 entering the weekend.

This turnover killed the momentum that UVA had begun to build after scoring and forcing a three and out on consecutive series prior, just when it looked as if there were going to be a battle at Lane.

The Virginia Tech offense went on to turn the interception into three points, courtesy of Brian Johnson’s fourth field goal of the ballgame.

33-15 Hokies.

3:36 left in the fourth

Divine Deablo, wearing Frank Beamer’s #25 jersey, intercepted a desperation heave from UVA’s Armstrong for his fourth pick of the year and Armstrong’s second of the game.

The pass had been intended for Billy Kemp IV on a seam route, but the tight coverage from Devin Taylor forced the pass to be thrown at a higher angle. This allowed Deablo, soon headed to the Reese’s Senior Bowl, to slide over and position himself neatly for the incoming pass, effectively ending the ballgame.

Deablo had been the most outstanding player on the defensive side of the football and deserved to make the final big play, earning his team the most sought-after victory of their season.

33-15 Hokies.

It’s back! The Commonwealth Cup is back! After 379 long days, the Cup has returned to Blacksburg!

Though there are debates about Fuente’s future, the direction of the program and what the lineup will look like next year, all that matters right now is one thing:

UVA is back in the doghouse.

Tech is on top.

Here’s to 14+ more years!

Commonwealth cup
Photo: Matt Gentry