Virginia looking to end long skid vs No. 24 Virginia Tech

FILE - In this Oct. 28, 2017, file photo, Virginia quarterback Kurt Benkert (6) runs against Pittsburgh during an NCAA college football game in Pittsburgh. Consecutive lopsided losses caused Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall to do an about face. Instead of ignoring the elephant in the room, that being the Cavaliers' need to win at least one more game to go to a bowl game for the first time since 2011, he acknowledged it hoping to help refocus a teetering team. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic, File)

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (AP) — Virginia players noticed as the Cavaliers got off to a 5-1 start that the crowd at Scott Stadium continued to remain the same, never reaching 40,000 fans for any of their first six home games.

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

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

Virginia Tech offensive lineman Jonathan McLaughlin (71) celebrates with Commonwealth Cup as defensive lineman Vinny Mihota (99) joins in after their 52-10 win over Virginia in an NCAA college football game in Blacksburg, Va., Saturday, Nov. 26, 2016. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

“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 Cavaliers for their 99th meeting with Virginia Tech.

The coach believes fans will come back in much greater numbers when Virginia shows sustained improvement, and their game on Friday night against the rival No. 24 Hokies is an opportunity for them 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 Mendenhall and Hokies coach Justin Fuente, the Hokies sent Virginia into the offseason with a 52-10 beating.

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

“They definitely look good,” Tech linebacker Andrew Motuapuaca said. “You seev 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.”

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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, allowing less than 130 yards per game. But their unit has been weakened by injuries, having lost safety Terrell Edmunds and defensive lineman Vinny Mihota for the year to injuries. With defensive back Mook Reynolds listed as questionable, they could be without three starters.

Here are some other things to watch when Virginia Tech visits Virginia:

QUARTERBACK PLAY: When Virginia’s Kurt Benkert has been good, he has been very good, but when he starts slowly, he sometimes struggles to snap out of it. He keys the Virginia 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 last three games.

WILD CARDS: Virginia Tech’s Sean Savoy and Virginia’s Olamide Zaccheaus have both shown themselves capable of making 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 on Friday night, 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 Cavaliers fans don’t minimize that, it will be like a neutral site game.

KICKING GAMES: Virginia Tech’s 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, by contrast, 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.