October 22, 2020

Independent analysis and commentary on UVA athletics

’Hoos Start Slow But Rally Past Mistake-Prone Blue Devils For Solid Win In Opener

Virginia 38, Duke 20:

Late in the third quarter of Saturday’s game at Scott Stadium, the Wahoos were down 20-17, and the Blue Devils were nearing the red zone, trying to add to their lead. Virginia had only forced two turnovers to that point — a fairly pedestrian number compared to recent meetings with Duke.

Then the Devils remembered who they were playing.

Safety Brenton Nelson picked off a pass on a bizarrely timed trick play — his second of the game — setting the stage for a big fourth quarter that saw the Cavaliers (1-0, 1-0 ACC) score 21 points and turn Duke (0-3, 0-3) over four more times. The Devils finished with seven. They now have an amazingly awful 25 turnovers in the past six games against UVa. And really, the last one didn’t even count, a muffed punt return that had absolutely zero effect on the result. So I’ll give Duke only six in this game and even then, since 2015, it has three turnovers per game against Virginia.

Overall, this was a solid season-opening victory for Virginia that went kind of as expected. The offense was rusty early. The defense was solid, but made some mistakes, and UVa spotted Duke a 10-0 lead. But then the better team showed up, the offense improved and was even more productive than I expected, and then Duke did Duke things that helped give the game away. (“Duke is Duke,” former UVa hoops coach Pete Gillen may say.)

Let’s break down some of the key moments and players as UVa notched a win in its first game and had head trainer Kelli Pugh break the rock in the locker room after the game.

Obviously, a fumbled kick return is not the way you want to start the season, but that was a great goal-line stand by the defense to only allow the Blue Devils to come away with three points. LBs Zane Zandier and Noah Taylor combined for the first stop, and LB Nick Jackson and S Joey Blount combined for the stop on second down. On third-and-goal at the 1, DE Mandy Alonso broke through first — as he was being held — to hit RB Deon Jackson, and then Nelson finished off the tackle. The defense went on to make several big plays, but this initial sequence was really significant and important so that the team didn’t fall into a 7-0 hole (which would’ve ended up being 14-0). The defense also did a good job of forcing three straight punts after this possession, allowing more time for the UVa offense to find its groove. And Tavares Kelly has to hold on to that return. He found it hard enough to find the field last year, and those kinds of errors will only make it tougher.

On Duke’s third possession, the Blue Devils faced third-and-5. RB Mataeo Durant had a good head of steam as he broke through the line, but he was stopped right in his tracks by Jackson short some of the sticks — a terrific tackle by Jackson showing some early progression from his freshman to sophomore season. Jackson finished second on the team with 12 tackles.

On the ensuing offensive possession, for the first time, the Cavaliers had picked up two first downs and had an excellent shot at a third. But on third-and-4, RB Wayne Taulapapa dropped a swing pass that was right in his hands. Taulapapa played very well, and I’ll get to his good moments later, but that was a blemish.

Duke went up 10-0 on one of its best offensive plays all game. QB Chase Brice found TE Jake Marwede deep over the middle, and Marwede did the rest. Marwede was able to get behind LBs Matt Gahm and Josh Ahern, and Brice did a good job of getting the ball right between and above their outstretched arms to Marwede for a 55-yard TD. If the defense seemed to have a weak spot, it was over the middle in the intermediate-to-deep range. Duke was able to exploit that area on a few occasions.

Virginia picked a great time to gets its offense in gear. With Duke up 10-0, the Cavaliers responded right away with their first scoring drive of 2020. I want to talk about a couple of plays on this drive.

Armstrong did a terrific job of keeping his eyes downfield to find Lavel Davis Jr. for their first hookup of the game. On first-and-10, Armstrong got the shotgun snap, stepped up through some pressure and was almost tripped up, then probably had an opening to take off for a run. Instead, he kept his balance, looked up for a moment, and fired a dart to Davis along the far sideline. Armstrong displayed great vision and awareness to not panic and make a big play.

Later on the same drive, Armstrong did a pretty good imitation of his predecessor. The sophomore took off for an 11-yard pickup, attempting to hurdle a defender at the end of the run. He wasn’t able to completely clear the tackler, but the move did allow him to get the first down. Had he just hit the defender, he may have been stopped short (though I wouldn’t count on it). I think before Bryce Perkins, we all might have been amazed by such an athletic play from a Virginia quarterback, but having witnessed Perkins’ crazy exploits, it came off as a very good play, but not a “Wow!” moment. But really, that was an excellent run by Armstrong. I thought on some of his rushes, he showed his willingness to lean into contact, but he also showed some vision and shiftiness at times. After that play, Armstrong found the end zone on a run from 4 yards out.

On Virginia’s next drive, Taulapapa picked up his first TD of the season. Prior to his 1-yard score, Taulapapa had a nice 19-yard run to the Duke 3-yard line, showing a little burst through the line and then the hard-nosed running he’s becoming known for. Taulapapa is tough to bring down and seems to always be moving his feet. He kind of moves through the defense like a little bowling ball. The junior finished with a career-high 95 yards and a pair of TDs.

On the first play of Virginia’s next drive, the Cavaliers split backup QB Ira Armstead out wide and threw him a little screen for 5 yards. It was a fairly routine play except for the fact that it was Armstead, a true freshman, making the catch. Because no player will lose a year of eligibility in 2020 thanks to an NCAA ruling, there’s no need to hold players back and limit them to four games to maintain a redshirt. If a player has a skill that can be used, this season is the time to show it. Armstead is probably at least two years away from getting significant time as a QB, but his athleticism is something that can be used on offense, so maybe we will continue to see him at WR from time to time. Sometimes, coaches or fans may say something like, “Man, that kid is ready to contribute in some way this year. I hope we can use him,” or, “Wouldn’t it be cool to see so and so do this?” Well, this year, those possibilities are more open than ever. There’s less risk now in bringing in a true freshman to see what he can do regardless of the number of appearances he has made.

Late in the first half, James Madison transfer safety D’Angelo Amos made an excellent diving interception across the middle of the field. It took quite a while, but finally Duke committed its first turnover, with many more to come. Virginia’s transfers made their names known throughout the game. Amos had seven tackles. RB Shane Simpson (Towson) rushed eight times for 36 yards and caught a pair of passes for 11 yards. TE Tony Poljan (Central Michigan) notched four catches for 44 yards. QB Keytaon Thompson (Mississippi State) attempted one pass (more on this later). DE Adeeb Atariwa (JMU) tallied two tackles. I remember a pass or two intended for Ra’Shaun Henry (St. Francis), but he didn’t catch any. Interestingly, I was thinking he was one of the transfers who could have the most immediate impact. But there are plenty of games left, so I expect him to show his stuff eventually.

WR Billy Kemp led the team with seven catches for 70 yards. It was sort of a quiet day for Kemp, but I noticed Armstrong leaning on his sure-handed ability early. A lot of the focus in the preseason was on Terrell Jana and what he will bring to the table for his senior year, Henry’s pontential to put up big numbers, and what the threat of a big pass-catching TE like Poljan will do for the offense. Poljan had a nice game, and of course, Davis was the real revelation. So Kemp’s workmanlike performance was a little bit overshadowed, but the 5-8 junior did a nice job. One play that stood out to me came around the 11-minute mark of the third quarter. Kemp caught the ball and was slung down but ended up on top of a Duke defender and not on the ground. He smartly realized he wasn’t actually down, and quickly sprung up for a few extra yards. Great awareness and hustle.

Midway through the third quarter, Armstrong threw his second pick. It was an ugly pass where he was high on an attempt to Jana. It set Duke up to go ahead 20-17. Armstrong didn’t have a great day when looking at just his completion percentage, 24 of 45 (53.3 percent), but some of that was attributable to the number of deep shots he took. Still, he was off on a few passes I’m sure he’d like to have back. Early on, the rust was evident. I expect him to come out of the gate looking sharper in coming games. Armstrong finished with 269 yards passing, 47 yards rushing, and three total TDs.

After the Blue Devils went up 20-17, they were marching again, looking to extend their lead, but the Wahoos came up with a big INT. Wideout Jalon Calhoun ended up with the ball in the backfield looking to pass on a trick play. He was under a lot of pressure and threw across his body — always a big no-no. Nelson, who was following Calhoun from the defensive backfield as Calhoun was rolling out, quickly began retreating toward the middle of the field when he saw Calhoun getting ready to pass. It was an excellent play by Nelson that showed his athleticism and intelligence, and it came at a huge moment, with Duke knocking on the door to go up by more than a touchdown. It seemed like an odd situation for the Blue Devils to try a trick play. I would have just stuck with the standard playbook at that time, when they had momentum and were hanging onto a precarious lead. I am glad Nelson is back and healthy after playing in only eight games in 2019. He was the 2017 ACC defensive rookie of the year, but over the past two years, I feel like he was overshadowed a bit. His two picks showed he is another defender opponents need to fear. In all, Virginia ended up with five interceptions. As I mentioned above, Amos had one, and Blount and CB Nick Grant tallied the final two.

Armstrong tried to connect with the 6-foot-7 Davis on a couple of fade patterns before hitting him for that acrobatic 18-yard TD to open the fourth quarter. Before that, Armstrong found him down the sideline for a 39-yard gain. It appears as though Davis, a true freshman, is going to be a major weapon. With his height, it’s obvious Virginia will be throwing the ball up to him quite a bit this year. “One of our best-kept secrets. It’s hard to hide 6-7 for about 12 weeks in practice,” Bronco Mendenhall said after the game. Davis’ first collegiate TD put Virginia in front for good.

Watching this game and with what’s been said about the ability of Armstrong to throw the deep ball, I think it’s fair to say the offense will move the ball differently than last year’s team at times. Armstrong has said the offense is similar to last season, but it has been tweaked to fit his strengths. He can certainly run the ball, but he’s less of a home run threat than Perkins was. But I think that might be balanced out a little bit with his deep passing ability. It looks like UVa is willing to throw deep this year, more than in seasons past. Having a 6-7 guy to be able to go up for the ball encourages that sort of risk-taking. So all of this is to say expect fewer long runs from the QB this season, but you should be able to expect more long pass completions as well.

On Virginia’s next drive, Thompson ended up with the ball behind the line looking to throw to Armstrong going deep. The ball was underthrown and incomplete, but it was a was a neat little play to show the coaches are going to be opening the bag of tricks again this season, which isn’t too surprising. Though I have criticized offensive coordinator Robert Anae over the years, I have to say he is usually pretty creative and comes up with a handful of trick plays each season. However, before the game, had you asked me in which situation did I think Thompson might come in (whether trick play or regular play), I would have said at the goal line where he can use his size and running ability to get into the end zone. After all, he completed less than 50 percent of his passes at MSU. And so when does he actually end up entering? To throw a bomb, of course.

Davis’ second impressive TD made it 31-20. Davis caught a nice sideline pass from Armstrong at about the 9-yard line, and then proceeded to knock multiple defenders out of his way to score. This kid is just a first-year. He hasn’t had a lot of time to bulk up yet. His potential is exciting. Davis finished with four receptions for 101 yards and was the ACC rookie of the week.

Despite giving up 20 points, the defense was mostly a menace all evening. Duke had only scored 19 points combined in two games, so the Devils did top that total in just this one contest, but Virginia’s defensive performance was very good. They set the tone by stopping Duke short of the end zone on the first drive on a short field. The ‘Hoos held the Devils to 342 yards and, in addition to the seven turnovers, came up with five sacks. Taylor had 1.5, DE Richard Burney, DT Jowon Briggs, and LB Matt Gahm each had one, and DT Jahmeer Carter had half a sack. Blount also hit Brice behind the line when he fumbled late, but I guess that went down for a tackle for loss. UVa recorded 11 TFLs. Zandier led with 15 tackles and was named ACC linebacker of the week.

Kudos to the offensive line. That unit has taken a lot of flak during Mendenhall’s tenure, but it did a commendable job against Duke, which came in with a strong defensive front. The OL mostly kept the Devils from getting to Armstrong, who was only sacked once. Duke’s defensive stars, Victor Dimukeje and Chris Rumph II, were almost nonfactors, and the running game produced 188 yards. Overall, Virginia accumulated 450 yards.

Brian Delaney was perfect on extra points and made his one field goal. The senior kicker missed two PATs last year but made all five Saturday. The field goal was from 32 yards out, and he has now made 14 of those in a row.

It was a great way to open the delayed 2020 season. It was awesome to see the players flying around at Scott Stadium again. There were only 1,000 people in attendance, but it didn’t look like the players were lacking for energy. They looked like they were ready to go, as was to be expected, since they waited for several weeks just to get their opening game in.

Turnovers were the key again against Duke. The team just could not hold onto the ball. The Devils had a chance to win but pretty much literally fumbled it away. I do think UVa is better, though, and that showed over the course of the contest. The ‘Hoos outscored the Devils 38-10 after the first quarter.

“That game was in the balance for a long, long time. Those turnovers really were the difference, and those are forced and plays made, not just miscues by an opponent’s offense. I was encouraged and happy,” Mendenhall said. “That was the difference in the game in my opinion. I’m so happy for Brennan in his first start — and an ACC game — to get a win. 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.”

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