October 26, 2020

Independent analysis and commentary on UVA athletics

Cavaliers Show They Can Compete With Tigers

No. 1 Clemson 41, Virginia 23:

One of those banners you see hanging in many classrooms says something like, “Shoot for the moon, and you’ll land among the stars.”

Virginia did that Saturday at Clemson, but it had a chance to be right next to the moon.

Less than a year after getting blasted by the Tigers in the ACC championship, the Wahoos played them much tougher this time around and had a chance to be within at least 10 points when the game ended.

And dare I say it, UVa (1-1, 1-1 ACC) had a shot to win that darned thing.

Yes, I said it. As Virginia fans, we were just hoping the Cavaliers would look better than they did in the 62-17 obliteration in December. We were hoping they’d cover the 28-point spread, and the guys did even better than that. A few missed opportunities and mistakes made the final score appear to be a little bit more of a blowout than it really was.

“We were anxious to play, eager to play, and believed we could win. A handful of plays, a handful meaning five or six, were the difference in the game,” coach Bronco Mendenhall said.

The ‘Hoos played well enough to the point where I was being critical that they weren’t making the Tigers (3-0, 2-0) sweat just a little bit more. It wasn’t about avoiding embarrassment. It was about noticing we had an opportunity to hang right with the premier program in the country.

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said after the game that Virginia gave Clemson “some Robitussin,” and I don’t think he was just blowing smoke like a good ol’ Southern boy to sound nice. The fact that Swinney knew the Cavaliers were on the cusp of making things really interesting is satisfying.

Star QB Trevor Lawrence was forced to play into the fourth quarter and completed a more pedestrian (for him) 25 of 38 passes (65.8%). That’s still really good, but the dude was above 80% going into the game, so I’ll give Virginia some credit. The Cavaliers were credited with two breakups, and they sacked Lawrence twice (one each for DE Richard Burney and safety Joey Blount). And the Tigers’ defense, top 10 in the country year after year, gave up 400 yards to an ACC team for the first time since November 2017 (N.C. State). I’m sure Swinney and defensive coordinator Brent Venables were critical of their players a few times when they sat them down to watch the film. For a team used to sitting all of their starters in the fourth quarter and breezing into the College Football Playoff, the Tigers were tested a bit.

The inability to tackle and get off the field on third down, and Brennan Armstrong’s two interceptions were the glaring reasons why this wasn’t more than just a test for the Tigers.

Clemson running back Travis Etienne is a special talent, obviously. He’s the two-time ACC player of the year for a reason. But the Cavaliers just did not do a good job of stopping him when they had a chance, and a couple of times, he was left unaccounted for on dump-offs underneath in third-and-long situations.

On Clemson’s first touchdown, on third-and-2, he took a handoff. CB Nick Grant and safety Brenton Nelson had him tackled behind the line of scrimmage, but he broke free. And then in the second half, on third-and-16, Virginia did an even worse job of tackling, and he picked up 28 yards on a short pass. I don’t care if it is William & Mary athletes or Clemson athletes, when defenders get their hands on a guy as much as UVa did at times with Etienne, and don’t get him down, that’s just unacceptable.

โ€œI think he is one of the best players in college football,” Blount said of Etienne. “He showed that today, and I have a lot of respect for him and what he does. There were a lot of plays left on the field that we had him in the position we wanted, but he didnโ€™t wait. With his athleticism and his game, he made it for himself and got out of the situations we had him in. We need to be better at tackling, pursuits of the ball and really just wrapping up.”

You can tell Blount is saying Etienne is great … but we had him a couple of times and let him slip through our fingers.

Clemson converted 8 of its 15 third downs. Notably, on the Tigers’ second TD drive, they succeeded on a third-and-9, a third-and-6, and a third-and-15. On that last one, Lawrence hit Amari Rodgers for a 28-yard TD in the back of the end zone. It was a beautiful pass, but still, frustrating to watch.

The Etienne broken tackle pass play I mentioned above led to 3 points. Getting off the field on third down as a defense is so important, and against a great team, allowing third-and-longs to be converted is just not going to work.

Armstrong hung in there and battled all game. He played well at times, took some licks, and kept going. He’s a gamer.

“Brennan is tough mentally and physically,” Mendenhall said. “The stage wasnโ€™t too big, the team wasnโ€™t too
good. I was really pleased with his mindset, his execution, his leadership. He did a really nice job.โ€

But Armstrong’s two picks did come at inopportune times. The first one in the second quarter set up Clemson at UVa’s 36 right after the Tigers had gone up 17-3. Within moments, they went up 24-3.

Despite that mistake, after a quick-strike score to finish the first half, Virginia opened the second half with the offense humming. After a fantastic catch by Lavel Davis Jr., the Cavaliers were on Clemson’s 19. They were close to getting within a TD of the Tigers. In Death Valley. In the second half. (Is this real life?)

But Armstrong’s lob pass to Davis was underthrown, and Andrew Booth Jr. intercepted it with one hand. He intercepted it with one hand because his other hand was tugging on Davis’ jersey. Still, it was a bad pass by Armstrong. I thought Virginia was too greedy and got a little too anxious. A jump ball every now and again is nice. But it should be used sparingly against an uber-talented team. I didn’t think it was necessary there.

“Just looking back, the main thing was we were marching down the field in the second half, and that was gonna be a big score for us … get some momentum starting the second half,” Armstrong said. “The pick in the end zone, that would have really swung it honestly. Thatโ€™s the one thing I look back, the pick in the end zone, that kind of hurt us. I think we would have scored there, would have had good momentum and the outcome of the game, just the score of the game could have looked a lot different.โ€

I thought two other moments at the beginning of the contest played smaller roles in the outcome as well. One came right on the opening kickoff. Virginia’s coverage unit was unable to get Lyn-J Dixon down until he crossed the 50. The defense did a nice job of stopping Clemson on that drive. But instead of forcing a punt, the Tigers were able to get a field goal.

The other moment came on UVa’s first drive. The Wahoos faced a second-and-10 at Clemson’s 42. Armstrong put a pass on the money to TE Tony Poljan, and he dropped it after LB James Skalski knocked it loose. Poljan has to come up with that catch. It would’ve set Virginia up at about the 27. From there, who knows? The Cavaliers might have scored a TD to go up 7-3 or at the very least, made a field goal to tie it. What better way to let the Tigers know they were there for the fight? Instead, the drop led to a third-and-10, which UVa did not convert. It had to punt.

UVa was not as far away from competing with Clemson as most of us thought. Indeed, it isn’t a far-fetched idea that Virginia had a decent shot to upset the Tigers. A handful of plays, like Mendenhall said, was the difference. A path to winning actually existed, whereas in December, that wasn’t true at all. But it could’ve been a reality Saturday. From hoping we wouldn’t get blown out, to being a little upset that the game wasn’t even tighter: This is what improvement looks like.

Other Observations

  • Armstrong completed 24 of 43 passes for 270 yards and three TDs (Terrell Jana, Keytaon Thompson, Poljan). He rushed 22 times for 89 yards. He put up similar numbers against Duke, but they were more impressive this past weekend since Clemson was the opponent. I am surprised he’s already thrown four interceptions, but I have to remember this was just his second start. The game still needs to slow down for him. Armstrong leads the ACC in total offense per game by a wide margin with 337.5 ypg; No. 2 is Miami QB D’Eriq King with 306.3 ypg.
  • I think Armstrong ran too much. It reminded me of a few games with Bryce Perkins when I wondered if the coaching staff was putting him in harm’s way too much. Perhaps some of those runs were his call. Armstrong can handle it, but I see no need to do this. I guess I am just yelling into the abyss at this point, but I wish we would give the running backs the ball more. Wayne Taulapapa had 13 carries for 47 yards, and Shane Simpson had three carries for 11 yards. They weren’t setting the world on fire, but they were gaining adequate yardage against a strong defense. I liked Simpson’s vision and ability to pick through heavy traffic and gain some yards.
  • The offensive line continued to impress me. Virginia went 4 for 5 on fourth-down conversions, and I think all four tries that were successful came on short runs. The Cavaliers were getting an initial push against the Clemson DL.
  • Was that a screen pass to Taulapapa on the final TD drive? Virginia fans have been clamoring for running back screens for years, and it looks like they may be in the playbook after all. On the first drive of the game, Taulapapa again was not ready for a quick screen pass, just like against Duke. He ended up with two catches, but Simpson, to me, looked like the more natural pass-catcher on his one reception.

  • Another catch — this one for a score — by a backup QB, Thompson, on a nifty play-action call at the goal line after Ira Armstead recorded a reception against Duke. I expected Thompson to be used at the goal line this year, but as a runner perhaps, not as a receiver. It is cool that the coaching staff is finding ways to use the QBs’ athleticism.
  • WR Billy Kemp IV had another big day, with 10 catches for 96 yards, both career highs. That’s 17 catches for 166 yards through two games. Kemp leads the ACC in catches per game (8.5) and is just about on pace to break Olamide Zaccheaus’ UVa record for catches in a season (93 in 2018), especially if UVa plays all 11 regular-season games and then in a bowl. He hasn’t scored yet, which is why it seems like quiet production. But the TDs will come.

  • WR transfer Ra’Shaun Henry has no catches through two games and has barely been targeted. This is surprising given some of the preseason praise Mendenhall directed his way, and the fact that he had 90 receptions in 2019. I know he is taking a step up from the FCS level, but I would have probably bet on at least 45 catches this year.
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