“It’s just another game,” Virginia linebacker Jordan Mack said.
Mack isn’t wrong. Friday’s game between Virginia and Virginia Tech will be played on a regulation-sized football field for 60 minutes with the same rules that have been enforced all season. It’s just another game.
In reality, however, it’s so much more.
By now, everyone understands the stakes Friday afternoon.
A win for Virginia (8-3, 5-2 ACC) means the 15-year losing streak against Virginia Tech ends. With the end of the streak would also come an ACC Coastal Division title.
“The reason why it’s so sweet is because you get a trifecta,” said Ahmad Hawkins, who played for the Cavaliers from 1997-2000. “You win the Coastal, you beat Tech, you stop the streak.
“It means something.”
For current UVa players, this game offers a chance to stick to the script. It’s a chance to stick to what put them in a position to achieve the goals they set before the season. They’ll worry about the result and what it means after the game.
Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall stressed that the preparation doesn’t change for this game even though the stakes are raised. The Cavaliers are 8-3 and 5-2 in the ACC because they have followed a process, and they’re not going to veer away from it.
As the coaches and players stick to their week-by-week mentality, fans and former players wait anxiously for the ball to be kicked Friday at noon.
“You don’t have the same appreciation when you’re a kid playing,” said Bill Curry, a UVa player from 1990-93. “The rivalry means a lot more to me today than it did when I was playing.”
Welcome to the rivalry
Curry, the son of legendary head coach Bill Curry Sr., grew up attending major college football games because of his dad’s career path. Bill Curry led Georgia Tech, Alabama and Kentucky during his time as a head coach, which meant the younger Curry attended games at several marquee venues.
Nothing, however, compared to his first Virginia-Virginia Tech road experience.
“I had been in some hostile environments growing up in the SEC,” Curry said. “I had been to Tennessee, LSU, Auburn, and I can tell you that beyond anything I had personally ever experienced, the hostility that I felt in Lane Stadium that day was by far the biggest surprise of my first two years at UVa.”
Virginia struggled in the game, losing that 1990 matchup by a final score of 38-13.
“I left with a very strong appreciation for the passion of the Tech fan base, and it became a big rivalry for me that day,” Curry said. “No question about it.”
Hawkins didn’t know exactly what the Virginia-Virginia Tech rivalry meant when he first stepped foot on grounds. It took time for him to truly comprehend what the game means to UVa and the commonwealth of Virginia.
“I didn’t understand how big the rivalry was until I made that catch,” Hawkins said.
“That catch” Hawkins refers to was his game-winning reception against the Hokies in 1998.
The game-winning 47-yard score helped complete a comeback that saw the Cavaliers erase a 29-7 halftime deficit.
“We just didn’t understand the barometer of it until we got into the locker room at halftime and the passionate speech that Anthony Poindexter gave us and just the body language from the coaches,” Hawkins said. “That’s when I was like ‘Well, damn. This game really is important.’”
As Hawkins began to understand the magnitude of the game, he found himself covered one-on-one with the Cavaliers down 32-29 with just over two minutes on the clock. Hawkins broke toward the left side of the field and snagged the pass as the Virginia Tech defensive back Anthony Midget flew by, attempting to make an interception.
As Hawkins ran the pattern, he thought he tipped off his route. Midget broke to the ball before he did, but quarterback Aaron Brooks fit the ball into Hawkins before Midget could make the interception.
Hawkins says the ball hit him in the facemask before he was able to corral it with his right hand to secure the reception. He took the pass, scampered into the end zone, fell to his knees and extended his arms to the heavens to honor his late cousin, who died earlier that year. Virginia won, 36-32.
The photo of Hawkins throwing his arms upward lives on in UVa lore.
“I love that that photo is iconic because me and my family understand why I did that pose,” Hawkins said. “It was for their death. They were murdered February of ’98 of that year. It was in memory of them. That’s why it’s so special to me.”
In that moment, the Virginia-Virginia Tech rivalry was much more than just a football game.
The importance of a win
Friday’s game decides the ACC Coastal Division. It also offers Virginia a chance to finally break a losing streak that began when George W. Bush was in his first term as president, Rich Gannon of the Oakland Raiders was the reigning NFL MVP and the current reigning NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes was just nine years old.
It’s been a long journey since last beating Virginia Tech, and the Cavaliers have the pieces to beat the Hokies. It’s a winnable game, and it’s a critical game for UVa supporters.
Even though Mendenhall’s team treats preparation the same as every week, the Cavaliers understand this game means something more than last week’s win against Liberty or the win a game prior against Georgia Tech.
“It’s important to the university,” Mendenhall said. “It’s important to the state. It’s important to the UVa alumni.”
For Curry, the game consumes his week as the anxiety starts to build all week leading up to the game.
“There is a lump in my gut,” Curry said. “The second the last second runs off the clock in that Liberty game, the build will start to be a significant factor in my quality of life, and Thanksgiving is a distraction every year because the Tech game follows it immediately.”
Mendenhall’s crew understands the importance of the game, but as Mack said, it’s just another game. The Cavaliers won’t make this game out to be more than a football game.
From the outside, and the perspective of the former Cavaliers who have played in the game, Friday means the world.
“It’s very important,” Curry said. “It’s so important to the football alumni that we get back on track. I’m so proud of this group, this team, this culture that we have at UVa, and it’s only a matter of time until we start getting our fair share.”