UVA offense finding its formula: Armstrong, Davis, power running game
If you’re grading Brennan Armstrong at the end of three quarters in his first collegiate start, you’re giving him, at absolute best, a C-minus, and you’re doing that on a curve.
Armstrong was 16-of-36 passing for just 125 yards with two picks – one in plus territory inside of two minutes to go in the first half, with UVA looking to go up two scores, the second an absolute stinker of a pass that was intercepted at the Virginia 10, setting up a short Duke TD drive that put the Blue Devils up midway through the third.
A break – a dumb play call that had Duke running a double pass near the red zone that resulted in an easy Brenton Nelson INT – turned momentum.
Taking over at the UVA 6, Armstrong finally got things in gear, leading the ‘Hoos on a 10-play, 94-yard drive, going 4-for-5 for 83 yards on the drive, hooking up twice with 6’7”, 210-pound freshman phenom Lavel Davis Jr., including on an 18-yard touchdown pass that put Virginia up, 24-20, with 12:43 to play.
Another Armstrong-to-Davis TD, a 26-yard strike with 9:59 to go, would put some distance between the two teams, as Virginia marched on to a 38-20 win.
Armstrong, in the fourth quarter, would go 8-for-9 for 144 yards and the two TD passes to Davis, who somehow was just a three-star prep recruit coming out of high school, and clearly is on his way to being a difference player at the college level.
“One of our best kept secrets,” UVA coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “It’s hard to hide 6’7” for about 12 weeks in practice. The same plays he made tonight, he’s been making against us almost every day. He wasn’t highly recruited. Was kind of viewed as a project, but we’ve loved him from the beginning, and see a really bright future for him as he learns and grows and develops.”
Davis finished with 101 yards on four catches, on nine targets, and the two TDs.
The combination of Armstrong-to-Davis isn’t yet Shawn Moore-to-Herman Moore, but for a quarter, anyway, it was as good as has been seen in Scott Stadium in the past 30 years.
“This was Brennan’s first start, and Lavel’s first college football game. The good news is the future looks bright. The other good news is it just takes time. We’re still finding our formula,” Mendenhall said.
Building around Armstrong
Offensive coordinator Robert Anae had been saying for months that the offense with Armstrong at QB was going to look a lot like it did with record-setting Bryce Perkins as the signal-caller.
No way you thought it could actually be. Perkins is an otherworldly athlete, and, no offense to Armstrong, who projects as an adequate, fine, even good, college QB, it was hard to imagine Anae using him in the run game as much as he used Perkins, who was as likely to break off an 80-yard run as he was to throw an 80-yard bomb.
Anae was just selling us a bill of goods, telling us the offense wasn’t going to look different.
So, of course, naturally, and coaches aren’t supposed to do this, you know, tell us what they’re going to do, but, yeah, the offense looks pretty much like it did a year ago.
Armstrong was used early and often in the run game, gaining 56 yards on nine carries, with three runs of 10 yards or more.
Sack yardage counts against the run game in college, so his official line is 10 carries, 47 yards.
Whatever. Armstrong is being used as a weapon in the run game, as Perkins was the past couple of years.
He’s got some work to do as a passer, as he’ll readily admit, but to his credit, Armstrong connected with seven different receivers on the day.
Billy Kemp IV seems to be the 2020 version of Joe Reed, the slight (5’9”), speedy slot receiver type, who in this one hauled in seven catches for 70 yards, three of his seven catches moving the chains.
Monstrous 6’7”, 265-pound tight end Tony Poljan, the grad transfer from Central Michigan, had four catches (on six targets) for 44 yards, three of the four catches leading to first downs.
The revelation, though, was Davis, who, again, the recruiting service people, how did they miss on this kid?
“He’s been doing that in practice a lot,” said senior wideout Terrell Jana, who had four catches on the day. “Our thing was, you know, trying to, you know, keep reminding him, you know, trust, trust your preparation, trust the process, and know early on that you’re going to struggle a little bit. But as soon as you make one play, you kind of fall into what you know, and he knows making plays.
“It was amazing seeing him catching two touchdowns, making big plays for the offense. We’re going to need that, you know, that presence, that 6’7” presence, you know, you can’t coach that. So, having him, you know, kind of come in to himself, is really good. I’m encouraged for how he improves over the season.”
Well, yes, because, as Jana said, you can’t coach 6’7”. Davis seems to have a catch radius of plus or minus 50 feet, give or take, and if you’re Clemson next week, and opponents thereafter, you’re giving him extra attention in your schemes, which opens things up for the Janas and Poljans and Kemps.
The run game
The statline says it all: 188 yards on 37 carries.
The ground game opened things up for the offense, as had been expected coming in.
The offensive line has been a weak point throughout the early years of the Mendenhall era, as he and Anae tried to account for the lack of resources left behind by the departing Mike London years ago.
But this year’s group was, coming into 2020, the most experienced O line in all of Power 5, and that experienced showed on Saturday.
Armstrong was sacked just once, and the statline didn’t credit the Duke D with any QB hurries.
Tailback Wayne Taulapapa had 95 yards on 16 carries, with two rushing TDs. Armstrong had his 47 yards and a rushing TD.
Towson grad transfer Shane Simpson had 36 yards on eight carries.
“That just goes to our offensive line, and, you know, Wayne and Shane, they carried the load,” Armstrong said. “I mean, we were popping off, like, five yards a carry, and when you can do that as an offense, there’s a lot of other stuff that we can do on top of that.”
“First and foremost, the line really did their job tonight,” Taulapapa said. “We talked about it all offseason, the work that they’ve been putting in. So, just excited to see them, you know, really get push.”
“It’s the deepest and most experienced offensive line we’ve had here at Virginia,” Mendenhall said. “Duke is very active and mobile up front, and very aggressive. It’s difficult to run the ball on them. I think our offensive line did a really nice job in their preparation for the game, but they are also seasoned and experienced, so that was something we haven’t had in our era here at UVA to this level. It’s a nice starting point to see where they’re took off from.”
We gave Armstrong a C-minus through three, grading on the curve.
Final grades for QBs are a function of what they do when the game is on the line.
Armstrong came up big in winning time.
So … our grade is B-plus.
Jana seemed like he might concur.
“For the offense, it was first time having Brennan at quarterback, all the transfers, you know, Lavel as a freshman,” Jana said. “Wayne, the O line, they played a fantastic game. The O line, really, you know, their leadership and their experience and their chemistry is really showing right now. The performance they put on here was great. And now just, you know, the rest of us skill guys and a lot of new guys are trying to come into ourselves and, you know, trying to mesh with Brennan as much as we can.
“We showed a lot of good things today,” Jana said. “I mean, it’s the first game, so a lot of that rust is going to get off and hopefully, moving forward, you know, the first game, the film is everything. So, a lot of mistakes that we’ll learn from, a lot of good things we showed, hopefully we capitalize on those things.”
Armstrong is cognizant that the semester is far from over.
“Performance-wise, there’s a lot to learn,” Armstrong said. “I needed to be more consistent, but I think that’s going to come as time goes. Overall, I’m just happy to get out there with the guys – we finally get to play. I’m just happy to get a win under my belt, and we’re just going to continue to grow.”
Mendenhall has the gradebook.
“I’m so happy for Brennan in his first start and an ACC game to get a win,” the coach said. “It was fun to watch our team play football. Lots to learn, and plenty of things to improve. But, they were resilient, and they played through their mistakes and different miscues, and ultimately pulled away toward the end. I’m encouraged. Certainly, lots of work, but I’m encouraged.”
Story by Chris Graham