It was clear from before the season started: the Virginia Cavaliers’ offensive line would be a work in progress. After the unit was filled with experience throughout the 2021 season, Virginia’s new starting five consisted of zero combined starts entering 2022. However, few of us expected the offensive drop off from one that can score at will to one that barely avoided a shutout at Illinois.
In last week’s column, I claimed that realistic in-season improvement from the o-line would simply mean rising to competence and not much more. And all things considered, that group did show positive signs in the Old Dominion win.
As we’ve seen on display over the last few seasons, Virginia has an abundance of weapons in their receiving room. In 2021, offensive coordinator Robert Anae took advantage by implementing his spread offense, maximizing the number of receivers on the field. These long-developing route patterns were perfect for Brennan Armstrong’s success, and were made possible by strong pass protection.
Against Illinois, Des Kitchings opened with a similar scheme. But, as Armstrong got pushed around, Kitchings started rotating in blocking backs as reinforcements. The offense largely relied on Mike Hollins on passing downs, but Perris Jones and Grant Misch were occasionally asked to take on that role. On 12/48 (25%) of Armstrong’s drop backs, fewer than five UVA receivers ran routes.
Against Old Dominion, Kitchings rarely utilized blocking backs (8.1% of drop backs). And quite frankly, it was because the ‘Hoos did not need to. This was for a number of reasons but primarily, the offensive line did a better job holding up their end of the bargain. Of course, they were facing a weaker defensive front but the improvement was vast. While Armstrong faced pressure on about 70% of drop backs against Illinois, that number dropped to under 30% this past Saturday.
It is evident that this year’s Armstrong has not been anywhere close to last year’s version. Still, he was able to take advantage of the line’s improvement.
When given 2.5+ seconds to throw:
- Week 2 at Illinois: 7-17 (1 drop), 8.7 YPA, 1 INT, 4 sacks
- Week 3 vs ODU: 12-19 (2 drops), 10.9 YPA, 0 INT, 1 sack
The interior of the line held up much better, responsible for a combined three pressures against ODU, compared to ten against Illinois. Center Ty Furnish’s improvement was especially evident. Also, left tackle Logan Taylor, who was beat with every sort of move in Week 2 was nearly flawless in pass protection last weekend.
Believe it or not, UVA actually ran the ball extremely efficiently last season. They didn’t do it very often, but the element of surprise allowed the ball carrier to get to at least the second level nearly every time.
In 2022, the offensive staff has made it a point to emphasize this element more. Instead of the occasional give to former back Wayne Taulapapa in passing formations, the ‘Hoos feel the need to increase the running backs’ volume of touches and do so with heavier personnel groupings.
Ball security aside, Virginia ran the ball well against Old Dominion. Ball carriers gained an average of 6.8 yards on 32 designed runs as opposed to 5.9 yards on 15 designed runs at Illinois.
I pin this more on the guys in the trenches as well. In simple terms, there are two elements to a successful run game: an offensive line who can create holes and an elusive ball carrier. The offensive line is usually responsible if the runner gets blown up in the backfield, but most of what is done in the open field is out of their control.
In this context, the running backs individually did similar things between the two weeks.
Percentage of total rush yards that occurred after contact (YAC) and on breakaway runs (runs of 15+ yards)
- Week 2 at Illinois: 62% YAC, 29% breakaway
- Week 3 vs ODU: 60% YAC, 35% breakaway
Again, we must consider that Illinois is a better opponent, but UVA could barely run the ball against the Illini, even when the defense was giving cushion. The line paved the way significantly better in week three. That’s similarly evidenced by the 2.1 yards per rush before contact that Wahoo rushers had against ODU compared to the poor -0.6 yards versus the Illini.
It is also notable that in the small doses that UVA runs the ball to the edge, the ‘Hoos have been extremely successful. Four out of ten end runs (excluding Brennan Armstrong scrambles) have gone for at least 10 yards combined in the two FBS games.
The Bottom Line
Even when taking into account the lesser opponent, UVA’s offensive line displayed plenty of progress from week two to week three. This unit will never be a strength of this team, but it is fair to expect continued improvement throughout the year and competence in ACC play. As far as scoring more points goes, Armstrong and the receivers need to pick it up while the turnovers better be limited.