UVA’s season opener is Duke’s third game of 2020: Tactical advantage?

uva footballBronco Mendenhall’s team hasn’t played yet. David Cutcliffe’s has.

Advantage: Mendenhall, because he has game tape to study, and Cutcliffe doesn’t?

Advantage: Cutcliffe, because he’s had two games to work the kinks out, and Mendenhall has no idea what he has?

“We know a lot about Virginia, but you’re still not looking at the 2020 version of Virginia. Any changes that they’ve made, we don’t know exactly what they’re going to be,” Cutcliffe said.

It’s the third week in a row that Cutcliffe has had to prepare for a team playing its season opener, and, no, it doesn’t get easier just because he’s doing it every week.

“It’s been challenging. Our players are a little irritable about it, to be real honest with you. It’s a unique setting. It’s what we’ve been given. We have to deal with it and just move forward,” Cutcliffe said.

For Mendenhall, it’s nice just getting to game week with an actual game to play. The ‘Hoos had been slated to open its revised 2020 schedule on Sept. 11 at home against VMI, but VMI decided to shut its season down when the Southern Conference moved to push its season back to the spring.

Then it was supposed to be Virginia Tech last week, before the Hokies had to reschedule due to a COVID-19 outbreak on the team.

Virginia at least enters its opener about as healthy as it can be. The only significant missing piece is a returning starting offensive lineman, Bobby Haskins, but the O line might be the deepest position group in the program this year, so while not having Haskins isn’t ideal, it shouldn’t be that much of an issue.

The bigger issue is that Mendenhall and offensive coordinator Robert Anae are working in a new starting quarterback, redshirt sophomore Brennan Armstrong, who is replacing the record-setting Bryce Perkins, now on the practice squad of the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams.

This is where not having the VMI game hurts. You assume that you win that game by a significant margin, so Armstrong gets broken in, gets a feel for what it takes to be the QB1, you get his backup, grad transfer Keytaon Thompson, some second-half snaps, and then you make adjustments.

Now you open with a team that already has two games under its belt, and David Cutcliffe, pound for pound one of the top five coaches in college football, on the other sideline.

“It’s a significant concern,” Mendenhall said. “Playing is really the only real feedback and accurate feedback that you get. And after a game, it becomes so much clearer where your team stands, where your position groups are, and who’s capable and consistent and finishing plays. Then there’s usually a significant jump between Game 1 and Game 2, which adds to that narrative and allows identity to be formed and forged at even a higher level.”

It could be an advantage to the UVA side that Duke really doesn’t know what the ‘Hoos are going to do on offense with Armstrong at the helm. As Cutcliffe alluded, the Blue Devils know what Anae wants to do with his offense, but right now all they can do is look at game tape of Bryce Perkins and his predecessor, Kurt Benkert, and otherwise guess what Anae does to scheme around what Armstrong’s strengths are.

“I think the tactical advantage comes to us just simply because there isn’t much tape on Brennan Armstrong and what our offense looks like with Brennan, rather than Bryce,” Mendenhall said. “I was a defensive coordinator. I want to know as much about the quarterback, how that might change the style of offense, what that might look like, and I’d love to have that certainty, or more certainty in that regard.

“Duke is very clear about their defensive identity though. So really, regardless of opponent, that doesn’t mean they don’t have variances, but they’re really clear about their approach which really allows them to adjust and adapt pretty quickly, no matter who they see because their system is well thought out and it kind of takes in all contingencies. Having said that, I would be more comfortable if I was a coordinator, and I’d seen some actual game film of what the opponent looks like and what style they’re playing and what changes have been made,” Mendenhall said.

So, which is it? Advantage: Mendenhall, or Advantage: Cutcliffe?

“It always helps, just like I was saying a minute ago, just to see if there’s been changes and what they might be, and again, what their identity could be, if it shifted from a year ago. It gives just a fresher point of reference,” Mendenhall said. “That is certainly our advantage in seeing them, but it’s also Duke’s advantage for playing two football games against two good opponents, and we haven’t played yet. So, I think that’s Duke’s advantage.

“Based on which way you look at it, I think you can make an argument either way,” Mendenhall said.

Story by Chris Graham

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