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Five takeaways from Virginia’s disappointing loss to Illinois

A bad result but still a few positive takeaways.

NCAA Football: Virginia at Illinois Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

No sugar-coating this one, the Virginia Cavaliers got utterly outclassed by the Illinois Fighting Illini today, losing in disappointing fashion, 24-3. No need for pleasantries, let’s get into the analysis.

UVA’s once-explosive offense goes silent

Wow. This was a bit of a shocker. Scoring a mere three points for an offense led by arguably the best quarterback and wide receiver corps in the ACC is something that even the most pessimistic of UVA fans couldn’t have seen coming.

The Illinois defensive line brought pressure all day long with five sacks while the Fighting Illini also completely snuffed out what seemed like an improving Wahoo rushing attack as the ‘Hoos finished with only 42 yards on the ground on 29 carries. But, those two things could’ve been predicted by evaluating what Illinois had done leading into today.

What was quite shocking was how little Brennan Armstrong and his receivers could do. Obviously the pass rush made life difficult. But the lack of execution from an incredibly talented and experienced group of skill position players is disappointing and a bad sign for the team moving forward. For Virginia to get back on track, the passing game needs to find a way to get back to an elite level — with or without a stable rushing game.

UVA wins the turnover battle

Perhaps the biggest positive takeaway from this game was how disruptive the UVA defense was. The ‘Hoos forced a whopping four turnovers on the day which gave the Virginia offense tons of opportunities to make this contest competitive. Anthony Johnson’s interception on the opening drive set the tone for the rest of the game with Antonio Clary, Kam Butler, and Jonas Sanker all forcing fumbles that gave the ball back to Armstrong and the offense. From that perspective, the defense made the plays to keep the team in the game.

Of course, the ‘Hoos also shot themselves in the foot. But I’ll get to that in a moment.

The UVA defense bent but didn’t break

In total, the Illinois offense more or less did what it was expected to as the Fighting Illini dominated via the running game and QB Tommy Devito managed the game and made plays when necessary. Lead back Chase Brown averaged 7.3 yards per carry as he finished with 146 total yards on the ground while the transfer quarterback threw for 196 yards and a pair of scores.

But, once again, the Wahoo defense did enough to contain the Fighting lllini. Holding the opposing offense to only 17 points is a win. That’s something encouraging — believe it or not — from the loss. Granted, Illinois doesn’t have the most powerful of offenses and UVA will face tougher quarterback competition down the line.

Special teams issues pile on

Of course, those other seven points came after Billy Kemp’s poor decision not to take a fair-catch on a punt which he caught deep in UVA territory and proceeded to fumble in the end-zone. The Fighting Illini took advantage, recovering the ball and taking a lead which they wouldn’t give up for the remainder of the outing.

That fumble from Kemp along with a number of short punts from backup punter Brendan Farrell and a missed field goal by the the senior only made matters worse and put added pressure on the offense to try and score despite bad field positioning.

Special teams wasn’t what lost UVA the game today. But it was a contributing factor in the Wahoos’ inability to get back in the game.

Virginia was out-coached

While the Fighting Illini were a well-oiled machine on either side of the field as their quarterback managed the game and the play-calling suited the team’s strengths on the ground, UVA as a whole looked very much like a squad in its second game with a new staff that wasn’t close to being prepared for what was coming.

On the one hand, that’s understandable. Bret Bielema is an experienced HC who’s had a year to establish his version of the Illinois program and has been able to mold the team into the tough, hard-hitting, run it down your throat group that was on full display today. And, this is just the second game of Tony Elliott’s head coaching career with a roster that he inherited and has only had a few months with.

But, so much of today’s loss was un-inspiring particularly in regards to the offensive playbook. The commitment to the run despite being down three-plus scores was a head-scratcher and — while it’s hard to fault the staff for simply not having the guys on the O-line — there are ways to scheme a passing game plan that minimizes and controls the pressure that was obviously going to come Armstrong’s way. Whether that’s on Tony Elliott, Des Kitchings, or somebody else, the passing game should still be the strength of this team and the fact that Armstrong finished 13-32 for 180 yards is not solely on him and his receivers.

Defensively, there’s not a ton to really complain about. Illinois is built to beat this UVA defense and, coming up with the turnovers it did, the Wahoo defense did what it needed to do to give Virginia a real shot at winning the game.

Hopefully, this is the gut punch UVA needed and both the staff and roster will re-evaluate what it’s going to take to turn this season back around with ACC play only a few weeks away. This loss is by no means an indictment of the future of the Tony Elliott era — just look at how badly UVA beat Illinois in Bielema’s third game at the helm — but there’s plenty to correct for this 2022 group moving forward.