October 26, 2020

Independent analysis and commentary on UVA athletics

Problems Perpetuate Misery As Wahoos Succumb To Wolfpack

N.C. State 38, Virginia 21:

Penalties, turnovers, poor play calling, a lack of energy, a bad injury on an illegal hit that knocked Brennan Armstrong out of the game, a blocked punt, a pick-6 — if it could go wrong, it seemed like it did Saturday at Scott Stadium as the Wahoos’ home winning streak ended at nine games. Before the Wolfpack, Pittsburgh was the last team to beat UVa in Charlottesville, on Nov. 2, 2018.

N.C. State (3-1, 3-1 ACC) defeated Virginia (1-2, 1-2) by almost the same margin as Clemson did, but the feeling surrounding the program is drastically different.

Instead of being 2-1 with a winnable game at Wake Forest next week followed by tough contests with Miami and North Carolina, the Cavaliers are 1-2, and it feels like they may need to scratch and claw the rest of the season just to finish with a winning record of 6-5.

UVa had chances early to get out in front, but miscues and missed opportunities characterized another slow start.

The defense forced N.C. State to go three-and-out on its first possession, and on the second, the ‘Hoos got lucky when Wolfpack WR Porter Rooks dropped a TD in the end zone. On the next play, kicker Christopher Dunn was on target with a 51-yard field goal, but the ball bounced off the crossbar and back into the end zone.

But instead of taking advantage, the offense came out flat, and the team looked disorganized. On Virginia’s first drive, it had to call timeout before punting because there weren’t enough players on the field (it had to do this on the second punt, too). On its second drive, Armstrong threw a ball into traffic and was intercepted by CB Shyheim Battle. Bronco Mendenhall said Monday that there was some confusion by the wideouts on that play as well, which made Armstrong’s throw worse than it appeared.

N.C. State’s offense got rolling after that. QB Devin Leary threw some really pretty passes, including one off a slick reverse flea flicker for a 32-yard TD to TE Cary Angeline. That play made it 14-0, but UVa followed with its first good drive.

At the beginning of the second quarter, Virginia appeared poised to cut the lead in half. It was third-and-goal at the 1, but the ‘Hoos were really uncreative with their play calling, and two QB runs later, the Wolfpack had stuffed them and preserved their 14-0 lead. I really didn’t understand those two plays. Not much pre-snap movement, no play action, no getting the ball to an athlete in space. Surely, there’s something better in the playbook in that situation.

When UVa got the ball back, still down 14-0, Armstrong looked gun shy. On first down, he rolled to the left and instead of throwing the ball away, he took a 10-yard loss. On second down, he dropped back, and it seemed like he had nowhere to go with the ball. He threw a pass that was tipped, and it ended up in the arms of CB Joshua Pierre-Louis, who returned it to the Virginia 20-yard line. UVa did a good job holding State to a field goal on a short drive, and the game was still within reach at 17-0. But on the next drive, Armstrong was knocked out of the game on a dirty hit by safety Tanner Ingle.

Obviously, I really hope Armstrong is OK and can return to play soon. His health is the No. 1 priority. On Monday, Mendenhall said Armstrong suffered a concussion and is considered day to day. But on the field, Armstrong is definitely struggling right now. It looks like he may be having a hard time reading defenses, or maybe the trouble is starting after the snap when the defense morphs into a different look, causing him confusion. Either way, I don’t think he is processing the game quickly right now, and he is looking very indecisive at times.

We may need to temper our expectations for Armstrong. It’s no secret the fan base was higher on him going into the season than others. It’s clear he has potential, but he’s going through some growing pains right now. We just have to remember that he is young, and he has not even started half of a season yet. There’s still time left for him to figure it out. He finished 6 of 9 for 57 yards and the two picks, plus he was sacked three times.

With Armstrong ruled out, junior backup Lindell Stone entered the game. That was an interesting development. Most fans were definitely expecting to see Mississippi State transfer Keytaon Thompson as the next man up. But perhaps his familiarity with the playbook isn’t where it needs to be yet. And clearly, he’s practicing some at wideout since he’s been in games at that position. Also, Mendenhall revealed Monday that Thompson has a shoulder injury that slowed down his development as a QB when practice started.

But Stone performed unexpectedly well. He doesn’t look to have much arm strength, and his release looked slow to me, but he really persevered in a tough situation on a wet day and gave Virginia a shot to come back and win.

โ€œI mean, there wasn’t a whole lot of time to think,” the Woodberry Forest product said about getting thrown into the game. “You’ve just got to grab your helmet. I think I gave my script to [quarterbacks coach Jason] Beck and ran onto the field. Not a whole lot to think about. You just got to go out and do your best.โ€

Stone led Virginia on its first scoring drive in the final two minutes of the first half, similar to the Cavaliers’ quick TD drive to end the first half at Clemson. Stone sprayed the ball all over the field, finding TE Tony Poljan, WR Terrell Jana, WR Lavel Davis Jr., and WR Billy Kemp IV for receptions. A wide-open Kemp was an easy target for Stone’s 2-yard passing TD.

“I thought Lindell did a really nice job of leading our team and giving us a chance to fight back and possibly change the outcome and come from behind,” Mendenhall said. “So, I think he did a really nice job showing a lot of courage, a lot of grit and saw the field well. I think our team also responded well just seeing his effort.โ€

In the second half, Virginia played better. Both teams scored 14 points in the final 30 minutes. But the mistakes didn’t stop for the Cavaliers.

UVa got the ball to start, and the punt team issues continued, with N.C. State’s Taiyon Palmer running in mostly untouched to block Nash Griffin’s punt.

N.C. State was set up at UVa’s 20, but on third-and-13, Leary threw a fade toward WR Emeka Emezie, and CB De’Vante Cross was ready. The senior had done his homework on this play and picked it off, keeping the game within reach for the ‘Hoos at 24-7.

Two drives later, Virginia moved into Wolfpack territory. RB Shane Simpson ripped off a 12-yard run to State’s 42. Then he followed with another nice run to the 32 — nice until safety Jakeen Harris’ shoulder pad popped the ball loose and State recovered.

Even so, UVa’s defense held again, and then the offense put together a 10-play, 97-yard drive, with Stone finding Poljan in the back of the end zone for a 1-yard score. Somehow, late in the third quarter, it was 24-14. Virginia had a chance.

But then the back-breaker came. After a missed field goal by N.C. State, Stone’s pass was tipped high in the air and intercepted by DL Alim McNeill, who rumbled 17 yards for a pick-6.

Stone threw an incredible 54 passes and completed 30 of them for 240 yards and three scores, with a late one going to Davis.

Virginia fought hard and looked more energized in the second half, but there were just too many blown opportunities and mistakes to overcome. The first 30 minutes was the worst half of football under Mendenhall since 2017. I was shocked and disappointed, and Mendenhall said he and the team had the same feelings.

“We started very slow. I think that both teams were pretty evenly matched going into the game,” Mendenhall said. “However, we turned the ball over four times — one for a touchdown, and we had a blocked punt and then a failed attempt from the 1-yard line with two plays to push it in. … Those six plays in and of themselves were the difference in the game, but lots and lots of things can be improved from where I thought we were. And today made it clear that we weren’t as far along as I anticipated.โ€

UVa made error after error and yet, I still think it had a chance to rally until the pick-6. The Cavaliers had the ball twice on offense down 24-14 with plenty of time left before that happened. To me, that pick-6 and the failure to score the TD from the goal line when it was 14-0 were the decisive blunders. Had those moments turned out differently, I think the final score would have been much closer. That gives me hope that if the team can just be sharper, the wins will start to come again.

“It never felt like the game would get away from us. It just seemed like one or two plays, and we’d be right back in it and have a chance to win at the end,” Mendenhall said. ” … But [there were] just way too many miscues to change the outcome of the game today.โ€

It is certainly fair to wonder if the Clemson game got into the players’ heads a little bit. A lot of people patted them on the back for playing the Tigers fairly tough for portions of that contest, and Mendenhall alluded to the fact that maybe the ‘Hoos weren’t as prepared as they should have been.

โ€œI talked more than I normally talk in that setting because after the game, there’s so many emotions, and I can be wrong … with Brennan coming off the field like that, but I didn’t think that we approached the game as we normally do in our own stadium, and we’ve been so successful [there] over the past couple of years. I’m not going to … jump to the conclusion they took it for granted, but we just didn’t prepare, compete or execute at a level well enough to maintain the outcome that we wanted. And that really was the answer.

“I do think the second half our team played more competitively, with a better mindset and more urgency. But a half isn’t enough, or parts of a half isn’t enough. We are certainly learning to sustain — start to end — clean football, competitive football and effective football to have the outcome that we want.โ€

So now Virginia is 1-2 and has to go to Wake Forest next week. The Demon Deacons also are 1-2. With Miami and North Carolina on the docket after that, getting a victory is very important for the Wahoos to set themselves up for what most would consider a successful season.

Mendenhall has proven to me over the past few years that he can turn around bad situations. The culture at UVa is strong. This is nothing compared to the problems he inherited in 2016. The fact that fans, players, and coaches were surprised at the performance against the ‘Pack is a good thing. That kind of effort and result have become unusual for the program. There’s reason to believe it is more the exception than the rule now, and we can still be hopeful that there are good things in store for this season. But like Mendenhall noted, perhaps this team is just not as far along as everyone thought.

Observations And Notes

  • Safety Joey Blount did not play in the game, but Monday, Mendenhall said Blount is probable for the Wake Forest matchup. I think UVa’s defense was missing his physical presence and energy early on, so this is a hugely positive development. James Madison transfer D’Angelo Amos started in his place, with Cross — who has logged plenty of snaps as a safety in his career — remaining at corner.
  • Cross had a good game and has been solid so far at corner after struggling there last season. In addition to his interception Saturday, he also broke up a third-down pass on N.C. State’s first possession.
  • In general, the defense played much better in the second half. Leary was a lot less effective, and he finished 11 of 25 for 184 yards, two TDs, and the INT. State’s offense scored just seven points in the second half. Still, Virginia was unable to sack Leary, and the ‘Pack ran for 179 yards as the Cavaliers had trouble stopping RBs Zonovan Knight and Ricky Person at times.

  • Several UVa receivers had big days. Kemp continued his early-season tear with 10 catches for 82 yards and his short score. He has 27 receptions in three games, with his nine per game ranking first in the ACC by more than a reception (Boston College’s Hunter Long is second at 7.8). Jana had nine catches for 111 yards, including a really nice snag on a low throw on Virginia’s final TD drive. Poljan recorded a career-high seven catches. Davis’ TD grab was from 5 yards out, and his other two went for 14 and 32 yards.

  • Despite the fumble, I thought Simpson looked pretty good running the ball again, and I’d like to see him get some more opportunities. On Monday, Mendenhall complimented Simpson’s vision and ability to make something out of nothing.

  • Virginia was successful on a fake punt in the second half when Griffin threw a jump pass to LB Nick Jackson that went for 26 yards. It was the second time UVa has had a pass on a fake punt go to a defensive player. LB Charles Snowden recorded a reception the same way last season against Liberty. The successful fake allowed Virginia to keep marching down the field, and it finished off the drive with Stone’s TD to Poljan to make it 24-14.
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