Hokies clinch; Hoos down but not out

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- Heading into Saturday’s game against rival Virginia Tech, easily the biggest game of the season for the Cavaliers and the most important one they had played in since the regular-season finale in 2007, Virginia was riding a four-game winning streak. They were ranked in the Top 25 of The Associated Press and were one of the hottest teams in the ACC.

Apparently, Virginia Tech was sick and tired of hearing about it.

“The guys definitely took it as a slap in the face,” quarterback Logan Thomas said. “We’ve been a part of this rivalry for the past couple of years. Nobody was really talking about us. They were all talking about Virginia and how good Virginia was going to play. We took it as a slap in the face and wanted to go play hard.”

Virginia Tech didn’t just play hard in the 38-0 win that clinched the Coastal Division title, it brought down its lunch pail on the Cavaliers. Over. And over. And over again. There’s no question Virginia Tech still owns this rivalry, winning eight straight games in the series. It’s obvious a gap still remains between the Hokies and the Hoos, and Virginia Tech is still the team to beat not only within the state, but also within the ACC until proven otherwise.

But ...

But ...

Be wary of Virginia.

Despite the lopsided score when it mattered most, Virginia still exceeded expectations in the second season under coach Mike London. His team was picked by the media to finish fifth in the Coastal Division, and many outside the program scoffed at the possibility of a bowl game. The fact that Virginia even had a chance to play in the ACC championship game was one of the biggest surprises of the season, and London is convinced that the loss to Virginia Tech -- as devastating as it might be to his players in the moment -- doesn’t detract from their overall resume this season.

“We’re a better team that what we showed tonight,” London said. “It’s easy to walk around with your head down because you lost to your rival. The implications of this game, it’s kind of tough because this is the game that could get you into the ACC championship game. No one ever thought our team would do that. Those two things combined, it’s disappointing, but the fact we won eight games, we won games on national TV and played well and had a chance to write our own ending here winning our game ... who would’ve thought that at the beginning of the year?”

Virginia had played so well recently, upsetting then-No. 25 Florida State on the road last week for the first time in school history, that it’s fair to say the Cavaliers actually underachieved in the season finale. Granted, Virginia Tech’s smothering defense had a lot to do with it, but it was an uncharacteristic performance for the Cavaliers. It was the first time this year that Virginia didn’t force a turnover, and the Hoos tied a season high with four turnovers. They were also held to a season-low 30 yards rushing and were shut out at home for the first time in 172 games.

What hurt Virginia the most was the fact it came up empty in three trips inside the red zone. The Cavaliers also had just three third-down conversions and came up short in the first half on a critical fourth-and-2 from the 7-yard line.

Despite what it might have looked like on the outside, offensive coordinator Bill Lazor said it certainly wasn’t for a lack of effort.

“To me, we’ve been playing every game like it’s a playoff game,” Lazor said. “ ... As a program that hasn’t been to a bowl game in a while, getting to that sixth game, to me, was like a playoff game. And then getting to the seventh game, and then you’re at the point where you’re playing Miami at night, and then you’re playing Florida State knowing the team hadn’t beaten two Florida teams in the same year. So to me, they’re all playoff games once we hit a certain point and guys were rising to the occasion.

“Yeah, everyone is disappointed and it’s certainly very disappointing to be shut out and be kept to such a low yardage number, but the big disappointment is losing because I think our guys came in really believing they were going to win the game, they believed they earned the chance to play in a [conference] championship game which they had, and it’s disappointing for the guys. I feel bad for them.”

Virginia Tech running back David Wilson doesn’t. He racked up 153 yards and two touchdowns, his 10th 100-yard game of the season.

“We have televisions in our locker room and we see what people say,” Wilson said. “ESPN was doubting us, saying we should not be in the top five, but the way the score went today gave a lot of those guys a wake-up call.”

The Hokies made their statement, and they’ll have a chance to do it again in the ACC title game against Clemson, which beat Virginia Tech 23-3 earlier this season. They’re not the only ones, though, with an extended season this year.

“Last year at this time, I was packing it up and putting it away for the season,” said Virginia receiver Kris Burd. “For us to have an opportunity to go in a bowl game and play is another opportunity for us to step on the field.”

It’s also another step forward for London’s program. It’s just not quite the leap they had hoped for.