CHARLOTTESVILLE — Last season, Virginia and Virginia Tech played for the ACC's Coastal Division title. One year later, and for the first time since 1988, they enter their annual football clash with losing records.
But don't talk to the Cavaliers about diminished stakes.
First, they are bone-tired of losing to the Hokies. Second, they relish the chance to end Tech's 19-year run of bowl appearances, the nation's third longest streak behind Florida State (30) and Florida (22).
"We know what the records are," Virginia coach Mike London said Monday at his weekly gabfest. "That's something that's made plain."
Most fans know the score, too. The Hokies have won eight straight in the series, the last two by a combined 75-7.
And while Virginia (4-7, 2-5 ACC) is bowl-ineligible regardless, Tech (5-6, 3-4) must win to qualify for postseason.
"Once you become a Cavalier you've been a Cavalier for life," quarterback Michael Rocco said. "So I feel like we've all lost eight games in this (series), and I feel like it would mean something to all of us to end this streak. For the guys that came before us and the guys that'll come after us. …
"To win a game like this would be something special."
The last time Virginia won in Blacksburg was 1998. The Cavaliers stormed back from a 22-point halftime deficit to win 36-32 as Aaron Brooks passed for 345 yards and three touchdowns.
Virginia likely needs similar production from Rocco and fellow quarterback Phillip Sims on Saturday. Tech's defense is far more aggressive this season, crowding the box, blitzing and challenging quarterbacks and receivers to beat single coverage.
"I would definitely say that it allows for some plays to be made," Sims said of the press coverage. "When teams sit back and play seven- and eight-man coverages, it's kind of tough to get these windows open for receivers to get the ball.
"When you've got one-on-one matchups, you have to man-up. … There's no excuses now. … It's you against him. You have to beat him. I like that. … As a competitor, that's the best feeling you can get. One guy's saying that he's going to shut you down, and if you're any kind of competitor, that should raise your level of play."
Rocco took a more tactical view of the Hokies' defense.
"When they blitz, it enables us to attack them with hot routes," he said. "You have to be prepared for it, though. If you're not prepared for it, they can hurt you."
Literally and figuratively. James Gayle, Bruce Taylor and friends are capable of bruising quarterbacks and stuffing offenses.
But Tech cornerbacks Antone Exum and Kyle Fuller have been vulnerable, and Duke, Cincinnati and Florida State threw for 300-plus yards against the Hokies, Pittsburgh for 283. Tech lost three of those four games.
"They blitzed against Florida State, they blitzed against Miami," London said. "It looks like it's kind of the MO about being very aggressive. And they've made a lot of plays because of that style, and sometimes it's hurt them."
Can Rocco and Sims exploit those blitzes? Can they avoid the turnovers that have plagued them this season? Will inconsistent receivers such as Darius Jennings and Dominique Terrell, not to mention big-play tight end Jake McGee, beat the coverages?
The Cavaliers have scored more than 14 points only once in the last eight meetings with the Hokies, a 33-21 loss in 2007.
Virginia has not closed the season with a victory since its 2005 Music City Bowl conquest of Minnesota.
All these streaks will end. The question is when.
"We know we're capable of winning this football game," Sims said.
Much is made of the alleged recruiting repercussions of the Tech-Virginia games, but Sims said systems and coaching staffs carry far more import.
"When you're getting recruited," he said, "it's kind of hard to look at just one game between two teams and say, 'Well, because one team's winning this game that's the better program for me.'"
But London has no doubt the Hokies' recent domination is a subject on the trail.
"I'm quite sure," he said, "on their side, they … talk about it a lot."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times