Surely the Virginia Cavaliers’ football program has had worse games than last week against the Illinois Fighting Illini. There’s a very long history and most of that history is not so peachy. However, I struggle to recall one as frustrating as that contest. Going on the road to a Big Ten school, forcing four turnovers, and holding them to 17 points was impressive. Failing to reach the end-zone at all or put any points on the board after the first quarter was embarrassing.
The loss leaves the ‘Hoos at 1-1, heading home to face ODU. The Monarchs are also 1-1, with a home win over the Hokies and a 39-21 road loss to ECU. That ECU game was 16-14 in the third quarter before the Pirates really took over. I’m sure I’m not the only Virginia fan who is happy this game is in Charlottesville rather than Norfolk.
The last time these two teams faced off was 2019, during Virginia’s Orange Bowl season. Although Virginia came away with a 28-17 win, the game was far from easy. Bronco Mendenhall’s team sleepwalked through the first half before a big Joe Reed kickoff return gave Virginia a short field and led to an easy TD. A pick-six from Zane Zandier turned the game around early in the second half and Virginia dominated from that point on.
This year’s team does not appear to be as good as the 2019 team, so there will be no room for sleepwalking this time out. And, as the Hokies learned, ODU is no pushover.
Virginia on Defense
ODU’s upset over the Hokies was not due to their offense, as they totaled just 249 yards. That is fewer than Brennan Armstrong averages himself, even including last week’s putrid performance.
When it mattered, ODU came through with a 74 yards drive in just two minutes. If anything, they scored too quickly, leaving 33 seconds for the Hokies. This was the biggest play of that drive, getting the Monarchs down to the goal-line.
Not exactly how they drew it up. QB Hayden Wolff was under duress and just flung the ball towards his man. WR Ali Jennings was single-covered but because the ball was under-thrown, the DB couldn’t slow down enough to avoid the receiver, who made a tremendous catch as he was falling down.
Jennings is Wolff’s favorite target and he had 8 catches for 200 yards and 3 scores last week against ECU. That big catch against VT wasn’t his only big play of that game, or even that drive.
That was the first play of that series, and sorta set the tone for the game winning drive. The Hokies are in a 2-deep shell. Jennings runs a nice corner route and Wolff hits him with a perfect throw on the sidelines. The Hokies were forced to be more aggressive after this play, and it bit them on the deep ball.
Last year, Wolff completed 63% of his passes for over 1900 yards with 10 TDs versus 7 INTs. That’s not bad. But in two games against Power-5 schools (Wake last year and VT this year), Wolff has completed just 48% of his passes, averaging just 4.8 yards per attempt (which would’ve ranked dead last in the nation last year) and 10.1 yards per completion (fourth from last). In other words, Wolff has not fared well against better competition.
On paper, the ODU running game is better. Blake Watson rushed for over 1100 yards last year at 5.1 yards per carry. Watson actually played against Virginia in 2019, rushing 6 times for 13 yards and catching a 25 yard pass.
This is Watson’s game. Although he’s listed at just 5’9” 195, he runs hard and he’s tough to bring down. He has the quickness to bounce the play outside. But he’s hit 3-4 yards before the first down marker and fights his way forward for the first down. Considering Virginia’s struggles against the run this season (and last), there’s real concern about John Rudzinksi’s group’s ability to stop Watson. Watson scored the game winning TD from a yard away following Jennings’ big catch at the goal-line.
ODU’s offensive line is a solid unit, with four returning starters including RT Nick Saldivaeri, a 2021 All-Conference USA selection. It’s not a particular big unit, averaging under 300 lbs. But they move well, which is why you’ll see a lot of outside runs and trap plays. Virginia should be ready.
The Monarchs rank 124th in total offense right now. They haven’t broken 300 yards in a game yet. Virginia’s defense is still a work in progress, but there is reason for optimism this week.
Virginia on Offense
Although their offense didn’t do much against the Hokies, the Monarchs’ defense was outstanding. They came up with four INTs, along with nine pass breakups and several QB hurries. They were in the backfield all game long with the goal of putting pressure on VT QB Grant Wells.
Wells did burn them a few times. If you bring pressure and don’t get there, you tend to give up big plays. Here’s one. Look how open this guy is. If Armstrong has time to throw, he should pick apart this ODU defense.
Another way the Hokies tried to negate the pass rush was with the zone-read. This makes the defense commit and then the QB just has to make the correct call. This was the Hokies first TD and is something Virginia’s coaching staff will watch very closely. Getting Armstrong out of the pocket and into space is a good way to enhance the run game without needing a great performance from the OL.
We saw how dangerous Armstrong can be against Richmond, rushing for over 100 yards. He doesn’t need to do that every game (though it would be nice). But just the threat of the quarterback running is enough to change what the defense does. Continually running Perris Jones and Mike Hollins into the line of scrimmage isn’t getting anywhere. As a team, including sacks, Virginia averaged 1.4 yards per rush. It was a pathetic performance.
Again, even just the threat of the QB run makes the RB look better. This is a zone-read look, even if the play itself appears to be a straight handoff. But this is a huge hole opened up by the ECU offensive line. Unfortunately, right now, Virginia’s OL doesn’t seem capable of doing that.
The Wahoos were 0-15 on third downs against Illinois. The average yards to gain on those third downs was over nine. In the first quarter, Virginia’s third down yards to gain were 7, 19, 21, 12, and 10. You are not putting your offense in a position to succeed when it’s constantly third and long. And when they did get third and short, the plays were simple runs designed that were easily stuffed by Illinois.
The offense against Richmond was unremarkable, but that was excused as the first game and against an overmatched opponent. But zero-for-fifteen on third downs and just three points, with this QB and these skill players, is unfathomable.
There were problems with execution, sure. But the play calling was poor as well. It seems that this coaching staff was less interested in winning the football game than they were in learning about this team. Maybe that’s the correct plan. It’s not like Virginia is competing for anything this season. The Richmond game didn’t teach us much about the OL, or the RBs, or even Armstrong. This wasn’t the best game plan, but maybe it was the best way to learn what this team can and can’t do. At the very least, we learned what they can’t do.
This is immediately after the second early turnover by the Illini. The Illini are in his face before Perris Jones even has the ball.
Through two games, ODU is 114th in rush defense (Virginia is 107th). ECU had almost 300 yards rushing last week, highlighted by the 81 yard run shown above. Don’t expect that from Virginia, but do expect Virginia to run the ball early and often. Frankly, ODU shouldn’t be scared of Virginia’s run game. Illinois wasn’t, and still Virginia couldn’t get anything going on the ground.
Illinois brought pressure and it led to five sacks and too many uncomfortable throws from Armstrong. When Armstrong did have time, his teammates didn’t do him any favors. Touch catches? For sure. But somebody just needs to make a play.
Middle linebacker Jason Henderson leads the Monarchs in tackles with more than double anybody else on the team. As a freshman last year, he finished third on the team in tackles despite missing a game. He’s 6’1” 225 and always seems to be where the ball is. Along with his 31 tackles in two games, Henderson has 4 TFLS, 0.5 sacks, two pass breakups, and blocked an extra point try early against ECU.
ODU runs a 4-2-5 base defense. The five DBs average 5’11” 188. Virginia’s three starting WRs average 6’5” 214. Pretty big mismatch. Of course, Virginia’s WRs had the mismatch last week, and couldn’t take advantage due to poor OL play, poor play calling and, frankly, a poor game from Brennan Armstrong.
There isn’t really a top pass rusher for the Monarchs. ECU, like Virginia, mostly needs to scheme to generate pressure. That said, sophomore DE Amorie Morrison is their most talented pass rusher and he generally lines up on the left. This means he’s up against the RT and on Armstrong’s blind side. This may be the most important matchup of the game. If Logan Taylor can keep Morrison out of the backfield and give Armstrong a comfortable pocket, he’s going to have a field day against an undersized secondary.
Armstrong isn’t likely to have two bad games in a row. And the OL has to be better. And the coaching staff should learn from last week. Right? Right?
So far, the Virginia defense has been better than expected, though still far from good. The offense has been worse than expected, and also pretty far from good. Yes, there is a senior QB and some experience at WR. But overall, this is a very inexperienced team. The OL is new, the RB is new, and there are at least six new starters on the defense. And all are learning new systems and schemes. Basically, things have to get better. And they will. Slowly but surely.
ODU is no pushover, and if this game was on the road (as the Tech game was) I might be picking the Monarchs. But Virginia will execute better at home and come away with a closer-than-it-feels win.
Prediction: ‘Hoos 24, Monarchs 14