99th meeting between Hokies, ’Hoos ‘all about pride’

Associated Press • Nov 24, 2017 at 1:15 PM

CHARLOTTESVILLE — Virginia players noticed during their 5-1 start to the football season that the crowd at Scott Stadium continued to remain the same, never reaching 40,000 fans for any of their first six home games.

That makes for a lot of empty seats in a stadium that holds more than 61,000.

Second-year Cavaliers coach Bronco Mendenhall has taken a philosophical approach to the prevailing apathy, often referencing a photo outside his office that shows a packed stadium when Virginia beat Florida State in 1995.

“I can’t see an empty seat. The grass hill is completely full. I aspire for this community in this state to want and be connected with our program at that level again. And I know it’s earned,” Mendenhall said earlier this week while preparing the Cavs for their 99th meeting with rival Virginia Tech.

The coach believes fans will come back in much greater numbers when Virginia shows sustained improvement, and tonight’s game against the No. 24 Hokies is an opportunity to take a step in that direction.

Virginia Tech (8-3, 4-3 Atlantic Coast Conference) has won 13 in a row in the series. Last year, in the first season for both Mendenhall and Hokies coach Justin Fuente, Virginia Tech sent Virginia into the offseason with a 52-10 beating.

This year’s Cavaliers (6-5, 3-4) have impressed even the Hokies.

“They definitely look good,” Hokies linebacker Andrew Motuapuaka said. “You see when you watch film and stuff like that. They play every single team real close. I think it’s a different Virginia team, but this game is all about pride.”

The Hokies boast one of the top defenses nationally in scoring defense (14.7 points per game), third-down defense (25.7 percent conversion rate) and rushing defense (fewer than 130 yards a game). But the unit has been weakened by injuries, including the loss of safety Terrell Edmunds and defensive lineman Vinny Mihota for the year. With defensive back Mook Reynolds listed as questionable, they could be without three starters.

Here are some other things to watch in tonight’s game:

QB PLAY: When Virginia’s Kurt Benkert has been good, he’s been very good, but when he starts slowly, he sometimes struggles to snap out of it. He keys the Cavs’ offense because their running game has been weak. The Hokies’ Josh Jackson has mostly been steady, but he’s had one touchdown and three interceptions in his past three games.

WILD CARDS: Virginia Tech’s Sean Savoy and Virginia’s Olamide Zaccheaus have shown themselves capable of momentum-shifting offensive plays, both in the passing game and the running game. If one of them can get loose for one of those long gainers, it bodes well in what should be a defensive battle.

TAKEAWAYS: In any game that figures to be closely contested, takeaways are often decisive. Benkert has thrown eight interceptions, and four of them have been returned for touchdowns. The Hokies have 16 takeaways this season and have returned two interceptions and one fumble for touchdowns. Virginia has 17 takeaways and one defensive touchdown.

CROWD: With more than 21,000 tickets going unsold for each of Virginia’s first six home games this season, and seats aplenty available for several years now, Virginia Tech fans have always managed to make their presence felt in a huge way at Scott Stadium. If Virginia’s fans don’t minimize that, it will be like a neutral site game.

KICKING GAMES: Virginia Tech placekicker Joey Slye, if recovered from a hamstring injury, is the school’s career leader in field goals with 78 and has range to 50 yards and up. Virginia freshman A.J. Mejia is 8-for-10 on field goals with a long of 38 yards because the coaches don’t think much of his range just yet.