November 26, 2020

Independent analysis and commentary on UVA athletics

These Wahoos Are Now Finding Ways To Win

Virginia 31, Louisville 17:

In many ways, the mistakes the Cavaliers made Saturday night at Scott Stadium versus the Cardinals mirrored the ones they made during their four-game losing streak.

They missed out on a sure-fire touchdown by fumbling at the goal line. Brennan Armstrong threw an interception that led to a touchdown. A botched two-minute drill nearly turned into a scoring opportunity for Louisville (2-6, 1-6 ACC). The defense gave up 317 rushing yards and 478 total yards.

And yet this time, they won going away, by 14 points.

Armstrong threw for 203 yards, ran for another 60, and totaled three touchdowns, the ‘Hoos rushed for 165 yards, Lavel Davis made his presence felt in his return to the field with four catches, 73 yards, and a TD, and the defense racked up four sacks.

But perhaps most importantly, Noah Taylor’s pick-6 on the Cardinals’ opening drive was the first (or was it the second?) of many big (and timely) plays Virginia (3-4, 3-4) made to win its second straight game.

I’m not so sure UVa is that much different than it was a few weeks ago, but the players are now finding out who they are and what they can do. I concede that a major difference is Armstrong is now healthy after missing half of the N.C. State game and all of the Wake Forest contest. But he’s better than he was before the injury. His progression is a big part of the season, and it was important he not only get healthy, but improve, and he’s done that.

Like other players, Armstrong is figuring out how to win games. That’s what it boils down to. It wasn’t always pretty Saturday, and these guys are probably not going to be close to perfection any time soon, but they did enough to snag another ACC victory.

Let’s look back at some of the moments that allowed UVa to creep one game back of an even record.

Leading off with the Taylor pick, the junior linebacker was all over the player and the route right from the snap.ย In the picture below, you can see Taylor has recognized RB Maurice Burkley running into the middle of the field. Taylor isn’t even watching QB Malik Cunningham at this point.

In the next frame, Taylor has turned his attention back to Cunningham, just watching his eyes. Now, he is just sitting on the route, hoping Cunningham doesn’t notice him so that he can pounce. As is the case with a lot of college quarterbacks, Cunningham probably locked onto Burkley from the beginning of this play as his primary option and never even saw Taylor.

The result was disastrous for the Cardinals and a huge momentum swing for the Wahoos, who did nothing on their first drive and then allowed Louisville to march down the field easily. This play set the tone for the game and also the theme for the defense. The defense allowed tons of yards, but not many points, and made just a few big plays, enough to turn the tide of the game.

“We were expecting a lot more success offensively, and we went three and out,” coach Bronco Mendenhall said, noting his decision to receive the ball after winning the coin toss (and I think this is the opposite of what Mendenhall usually chooses). “Then Louisville was moving the football consistently, and they were down in our red zone. So [Taylor’s pick-6] was a critical turn of events to kind of recapture the momentum we were hopeful to orchestrate from our decision just at the beginning of the game.”

So obviously that defensive TD was big — everyone knows that. But I do want to point out one big play on Virginia’s first offensive drive — the punt. The snap was low and actually hit the ground before getting to Nash Griffin, who fielded it at UVa’s 11. But he handled it coolly and boomed the punt 44 yards to the Louisville 30-yard line. If the ball skids past Griffin, or the punt is blocked, we could instead be talking about a 7-0 or 2-0 lead for Louisville to start the game. So I wanted to point out Griffin’s smoothness in making that play. How many times do we get to talk about the punter anyway?

Virginia wound up with two more turnovers, one more significant than the other, and a fourth-down stop.

The second-most important turnover came on third-and-1 with 8:34 left in the game and Virginia up 24-17. Cunningham took off like he did so many other times, gaining 27 yards all the way to UVa’s 35. The Cardinals were going to be in business and driving for the tie. But then CB Nick Grant ripped the ball right out of Cunningham’s hands as safety D’Angelo Amos tried to drag him down.

“It went from coaches furious on the headset because we weren’t tackling [Cunningham] very well, to elation all within a split second,” Mendenhall said. “Hustle plays matter. We’re continuing to drive home to our team that how hard they try usually leads at some point at some time to positive plays that’ll help our team.

The ironic part about the play is just what Mendenhall mentioned. The defense did a poor job of containing Cunningham all night. The junior signal-caller rushed for an incredible 230 yards. This was looking just like another one of those bad plays. But Grant made the big play to erase the bad one.

“It epitomizes Nick, his hustle and his effort,” Mendenhall said. “He’s earned my respect, and I’ll remember him no matter how long I coach, as someone who is relentless in terms of how hard they try. I love to see those kind of plays happen because the whole team and everyone that watches our program can link those things together, which is good for everyone’s growth and development, to see effort is rewarded. And he’s a good example of that.”

Another funny thing about the sequence is Amos’ inability to tackle — a problem all year — may have helped cause the fumble. Instead of just cleanly tackling Cunningham, Amos had to resort to holding onto him for about 10 yards, meaning at the end of the play, Grant had his chance to take the ball since Amos was still wrestling Cunningham to the ground. That’s one of the funny nuances of a game sometimes, where a bad thing such as poor tackling possibly ends up helping bring about a positive result — a bit of good fortune UVa was missing during its losing streak.

The Cavaliers scored a TD after that turnover, all but putting the game out of reach.

The last turnover also happened at the end of a positive Louisville play. The Cardinals were down 31-17, but still had time left to get back in the game. The clock sat at 4:22 when they had first-and-10 at their own 25. Cunningham found Dez Fitzpatrick for a 13-yard reception, but as Zane Zandier was tackling him, the ball popped out just before his knee touched the ground. Virginia was unable to score a TD off the turnover, but it did manage to bleed two precious minutes off the clock.

That was the story of the game for the defense — bending, but not breaking, plus making just a few key plays.

The fourth-down stop came at the beginning of the second half. Louisville was down 14-10 and faced fourth-and-2 at its own 47. Cunningham handed the ball to Burkley who crashed into the middle of the line to no avail. Seemingly half of the UVa defense was ready and stopped him.

I totally get why the Cardinals went for it. They were 2-5, on the road, and figuring, hey, let’s just go for it. We need to score to win this game. But I did not like the play call. If Cunningham had the option to keep the ball, he should’ve kept it. He was the Cardinals’ most dynamic playmaker, especially on a day when their top two running backs and top receiver were out. Having Burkley just barrel into the line there wasn’t going to get it done.

LB Charles Snowden continued to assert his will throughout the contest. The senior linebacker had two huge plays on the same drive in the second quarter after UVa went up 14-10.

On the first, he blew up a wide receiver screen, recognizing the play, throwing the blocking wideout aside, and tackling Braden Smith in the backfield.

On the second, Louisville faced third-and-9 at UVa’s 41. Cunningham escaped pressure initially, but Snowden charged at him and tracked him down for the sack. That was a really bad sack for Cunningham to take. With a small gain, or possibly just an incomplete pass, Louisville could’ve been in position to go for it on fourth down or kick a field goal.

For the second straight game, LB Nick Jackson got a sack, too. It came on Louisville’s second drive on second-and-8 in Virginia territory. After he took down Cunningham, it was third-and-17. Louisville only managed a field goal on that drive instead of a TD. Just a sophomore, Jackson continues to be a tackling machine. He led the team in stops with 10 versus the Cardinals, and he is also first on the yearlong list with 74, 14 more than Zandier in second.

Not to be outdone, the offense did come through with some plays of its own.

Armstrong completed 15 of 23 passes (65.2%, his best mark of the season) and had just one INT. It was hard to tell what happened on his pick, but it looked like Davis slipped on the play, so maybe no one was to blame. Either way, Armstrong has improved his ball security. The sophomore from Ohio had two picks in each of the first three games of the season, but has only two over the past three games.

It was good to see Davis out there making plays, and not just on jump balls. Virginia put him in the middle of the defense at times, almost using him as a big tight end-type target. Davis’ TD came in the third quarter on a neat jump pass from Armstrong, who did a good job of faking like he was going to run up the middle before tossing the ball to Davis for a 21-10 lead.

Davis is much more valuable as a piece when UVa moves him all over the field. I am glad they aren’t limiting him to just jump balls, which, in turn, limit the offense.

Armstrong had a really nice pass to Davis at the end of the first quarter, too, when he rifled him the ball right in the middle of the zone, behind the corner and in front of the safety. I think that pass took a lot of confidence from Armstrong, and it also meant Armstrong had confidence that Davis would be in the right spot.

Davis was not perfect. He made a freshman mistake after a big play in the fourth quarter when he drew a flag for taunting a defender. It moved Virginia back from the Louisville 6 to the 21. You could tell immediately after the play that he was contrite. If you must celebrate a first down (and I think that is silly most of the time), do it with your teammates. Maybe the referee was quick pulling out his flag, but the players need to not give the refs the option. Just don’t do it. Period. But I expect Davis to learn from his mistake.

Right before Davis’ TD, Armstrong made another excellent play. Louisville jumped offsides, so he had a free play, recognized it, and found Jana down the sideline for a 33-yard gain to the Cardinals’ 11. Jana made an excellent adjustment with his body to catch the ball. Armstrong did a wonderful job of taking advantage of that opportunity. Jana had three catches for 46 yards.

Armstrong made another great play on the Cavaliers’ final TD drive. It was third-and-9 at the UVa 37. He was looking to his right, didn’t like what he saw, stepped up out of pressure, looked back to his left, and found Billy Kemp IV across the middle of the field for a 29-yard gain. Kemp, whose initial route had him just run to the sideline and turn around, did a great job of making himself available, work back to the middle and moving into Armstrong’s line of vision. Kemp also had three receptions for 46 yards, none bigger than that one when he split the middle of the defense.

“Billy Kemp on that drive, it didn’t surprise me at all, I thought he was the difference … in terms of what he did with the ball when he had it, but he’s done that all year,” Mendenhall said.

Both of Armstrong’s TD runs were solid, too. The first one was especially fun (and possibly harrowing) when he trucked a guy at the goal line after deciding to scramble in from the 15-yard line. The second was a smooth read-option play when he went in untouched.

“I like that style, and I think people feed off that,” said Armstrong, who missed 1.5 games with a concussion. “That’s just who I am so that helps. I don’t have to fake it. I get fired up on things like that. Trucking a guy in the end zone, that’s kind of what I do. [Quarterbacks coach Jason] Beck told me that’s the one time I can try, to put my shoulder down and give it all I got, so that’s what I did.”

Armstrong isn’t the best running or passing QB Virginia has had, but he’s really making some great strides and turning into his own kind of player, a darn good one at that. Remember, he’s just a sophomore that has started six games. With more time, he should progress even further.

As I said earlier, the ‘Hoos were not always pretty during the victory. There were a couple of occasions when I wanted to pull my hair out. TE Tony Poljan dropped another pass/fumbled again, whichever side of the call you are on. Whether you think he caught it or not, the point remains that Poljan has been less than a sure thing with his hands. The play was ultimately called a fumble. Louisville did not score on the ensuing possession but still, if UVa had gotten that TD, it would’ve been up 14-3. The Cardinals did eventually go up 10-7. Had Poljan pulled an Armstrong and just blasted his way into the end zone, it’s possible Virginia would have led wire-to-wire.

Another frustrating moment came at the end of the first half. Virginia started its two-minute drill like it does almost every time — with a run. Wayne Taulapapa picked up only 3 yards. On the next play, Armstrong scrambled for 3 yards. On third down, his pass to Kemp fell incomplete.

Virginia went from hoping to score before halftime to giving the ball back to Louisville with enough time to score. The first run, I understand. In other games, the RB has picked up a nice gain in that situation, really setting the two-minute drill in motion. But this time, the run netted only 3 yards. After the Armstrong run, it was clear the drive probably wasn’t going anywhere. Virginia would have been better just to run on third down, too. The incomplete pass stopped the clock.

As a result, the Cardinals had a chance to at least score a field goal before the break. Luckily, the defense bailed out the offense when Zandier sacked Cunningham at midfield. But I guess that’s complementary football. Or at least in this case, pick-me-up football. When one unit messes up, another makes up for it. That’s how Virginia beat Louisville, by making the right plays at the right time.

“The identity of this team — the defense, the offense — is still being uncovered, and the pieces change each week as well. … So it’s harder for me to tell you, ‘Yeah it is like last year or not like last year,'” Mendenhall said. “It depends which game versus which opponent, and which players we have. All I do know is they’re committed, and they’ll try really hard, and they want to play football, as much as they can, and they want to win. And it’s looking like it is trending in that direction down the stretch.”

Observations And Notes

  • Hello Ronnie Walker! Finally we got a glimpse of what he can do. All three tailbacks had good moments. All are capable of big plays. Walker had 22 yards, Taulapapa 32, and Shane Simpson led the way with 50. All rushed for at least 4 ypc. Obviously, Virginia has had better tandems in the backfield — Wali Lundy and Alvin Pearman come to mind. But have the Cavaliers ever had a threesome this … solid at RB?
  • Mandy Alonso had the fourth sack for the ‘Hoos, his first of the year. Virginia has 24 this season, 3.43 per game, which ranks 14th in the nation.
  • CB De’Vante Cross actually played the reverse flea-flicker well. It wasn’t like he was tricked, he just couldn’t get into position to make a play on the ball as it came down to TE Marshon Ford.
  • Yes, Cunningham’s first TD run from 19 yards out in the second quarter was impressive as he scooted down the sideline, but Louisville OL Trevor Reid should’ve been called for holding on the play. He grabbed a fistful of Alonso’s jersey.
  • Do-everything weapon Keytaon Thompson did not play. Mendenhall did not say why, but on Monday, he said Thompson would be available for the game this Saturday versus Abilene Christian.
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