CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- It is easy to get swept up in the emotion of a big victory. Coaches and players on the winning side always add extra weight and meaning to a game after they have won while the losing team always tries to downplay the significance. On Friday in Charlottesville when Virginia defeated Virginia Tech for the first time since 2003, with fans storming the field and the raw emotion of the players and coaches as the backdrop, that win certainly felt like more than just one regular-season rivalry game.
That was the message the Cavaliers pushed afterward.
"It feels like a burden taken off of us," defensive end Mandy Alonso said. "It’s amazing for this program and for Coach [Bronco] Mendenhall to come in and change the whole program. To be a part of this is just a grateful feeling.”
"The stage was not too big for them," Mendenhall said. "The moment was not too big for them. What was at stake was not too big for them. They believed that they were capable and prepared to perform in this setting and they did. "
Clearly this was a big win for Virginia, but could it actually signal a passing of the torch to the Cavaliers as the top college football program in the Commonwealth?
To anyone sporting maroon and orange, that is a ridiculous notion. Bryce Perkins is what makes the Cavaliers' offense go and he was able to torch the Hokies for 475 total yards, but he is a senior and will be moving on. Yes, UVA got the win, but that ended a streak of 15 straight wins for the Hokies. One win does not suddenly erase a decade and a half of dominance.
They had to win sometime, right?
Not surprisingly, the message from Virginia Tech’s locker room was very different from their counterparts as the Hokies described it as just one game that the team would put behind them.
"It was a tough loss, but we just need to move on," wide receiver Tayvion Robinson said.
"I told them we can take this event and go one of two ways," head coach Justin Fuente said. "It can draw us closer together, fuel our fire. We have one more opportunity to play football together with this group. One more chance to play better against whoever we play. That needs to be our focus.”
But the last 15 years of the rivalry is not the only context that mattered on Saturday and the Commonwealth Cup wasn’t the only trophy on the line. Saturday’s game was for the ACC Coastal Division crown as well. It is also year four for both Bronco Mendenhall at Virginia and Justin Fuente at Virginia Tech when a head coach is supposed to be hitting his stride at a school with his system firmly in place and the roster full of his own recruits.
At the very least, it does seem like Virginia and Virginia Tech are two teams headed in opposite directions.
The Cavaliers won the division on Friday for the first time ever. UVA's win total has risen each year during Mendenhall’s tenure going from two to six to eight to now nine and that’s before the ACC Championship and the bowl game. This will be the team’s third consecutive season making a bowl, the longest streak enjoyed in Charlottesville since 2002-05.
“It’s an essential step," Mendenhall said of the team's first division crown. "You can’t build a consistent conference or national contender unless you own your state. You have to win your division before you can win the conference championship. Those have to happen to have a quality football program."
Under Fuente, Virginia Tech won 10 games and the Coastal Division in his first year as head coach in 2016. The Hokies won nine games in 2017 and just six in 2018, suffering the team’s first losing season since 1992. It took an emergency schedule addition of Marshall in the final week of the season just to earn that sixth win and keep the team's coveted bowl streak alive.
Yes, 2019’s season with eight wins shows a bit of a bounceback from 2018, but legendary defensive coordinator Bud Foster is on his way out and the overall trajectory of the program over Fuente’s four years seems to be trending down.
What’s more, Virginia is even out-recruiting Virginia Tech as both Rivals and 247 Sports currently rank Mendenhall’s 2020 class ahead of Fuente’s. Granted, recruiting classes can change dramatically on signing day, but this is a sign that, at least to recruits, state supremacy appears to be up for grabs.
At the very least, Friday's game showed two things.
First, it showed the level of confidence Mendenhall has injected into a program that had very little reason to feel that way over the past 20 years.
"We expected to win and we expected to be in the ACC championship," wide receiver Hasise Dubois said.
"All year long, all spring, all camp, since that bowl game we’ve been working as a team to be exactly here," Perkins said. "We talked about it all year, ACC champs, beat Tech and everything that we’ve done all year in practice and in games had led us to this moment."
Second, Virginia's win fanned the flames of a rivalry that has felt largely dormant through Virginia Tech's run.
"I respect their program and I respect them as a rival," Mendenhall said. "The quality of their program has helped us improve our program. They’ve set a standard that has been helpful for us to measure against and to grow against in the short time I’ve been here."
"Our kids will remember this I think," Foster said. "I talked to them about a rivalry. A rivalry is when two teams win and now this team won. So yeah, we will need to kick this thing back up again when it is all said and done.”
It has been four years since the Commonwealth Cup shifted from Frank Beamer vs. Mike London to Fuente vs. Mendenhall. Fuente has thus far won three out of four of those games, but with his win coming in the pivotal fourth year for each coach at their respective program, it is not a stretch to believe that Mendenhall’s lone win may be the most important of the four.
Said Mendenhall, "Today was as close as I've seen to what is possible at Scott Stadium."
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