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Five takeaways from Virginia’s devastatingly close loss to Syracuse

Gathering all of our thoughts from an insane Friday night loss.

Virginia v Syracuse Photo by Bryan M. Bennett/Getty Images

The Virginia Cavaliers dropped a heartbreaker to the Syracuse Orange earlier tonight, 22-20. So we’ve got you covered with the five most notable takeaways from the loss and what it means for the Wahoos moving forward.

UVA rallies after looking down and out

Looking beyond all the negatives from tonight for a moment, the second half performance from Tony Elliott’s squad — and the offense specifically — was nothing short of redemptive following a scoreless first half. Facing a 16-0 deficit entering the final thirty minutes, the ‘Hoos scored touchdowns on their first two drives of the second half as they converted after the kickoff team forced a fumble on Syracuse’s return.

Keytaon Thompson found the end-zone first on a pitch play which was reminiscent of last season when he was utilized as a rushing option in the red-zone before Perris Jones punched in a score fewer than thirty seconds later. Unfortunately, a too many men on the field penalty negated UVA’s decision to go for two after the first score and a blocked extra point on the second complicated matters a bit.

Nevertheless, UVA’s offense and defense continued to rally with the offense putting together a fourth quarter, 75-yard touchdown drive culminating in a fourth-and-goal conversion to Lavel Davis Jr. And despite Syracuse continuously knocking on the door in UVA territory and in the red-zone, the Wahoo defense held Robert Anae’s offense to a mere six second half points.

It ended up being all for naught with Syracuse’s go-ahead field goal with 1:14 remaining and Armstrong and the offense not able to put together another game-winning drive. But, still, such a comeback is encouraging for this team moving forward even with this team having dropped its two contests against power five competition.

Brennan Armstrong continues to look like a shell of his former self

While the offense did find its footing in the second half, Brennan Armstrong continues to perform well below expectations. Yes, he made plays and had his moments, but a final stat line of 19-38 passing, 138 yards through the air, 29 on the ground, one passing touchdown, an interception, and a fumble speaks for itself; that’s mediocre at best.

Sure, the offensive line isn’t particularly stable and Armstrong is let down by his receivers at times via drops. But his decision making in the pocket, accuracy as a passer, and general ball protection have all taken notable dips this season which has stunted the progress of an offense that has had bright spots in the running game and, at times, on the offensive line.

Even with the improvement on defense (which I’ll touch on in a second) and the moderate success in the running game, this team will go as far as Brennan Armstrong takes them. And, right now, he’s not taking them very far.

The devil is in the details

For another game, the small things killed UVA once again. The coaching decisions to kick 51 and 49-yard field goals early in the game were absolute head scratchers while the first half play calling was far, far too vanilla and Armstrong’s two turnovers were death sentences in a game where there was little to no room for error.

Add in that blocked extra point, the too many men on the field penalty when UVA was looking to go for two, and Armstrong not seeing a fairly open Keytaon Thompson at the sticks on his game-deciding incompletion to Lavel Davis on fourth down in the final minute of play and this was a game that the ‘Hoos very easily could’ve won. And that’s tough with how much a win would’ve meant for this team.

The defensive line came to play

But, back to a more optimistic takeaway, HOW BOUT THAT DEFENSE?!?! For the fourth game in a row this Wahoo defense came up big. Forcing four turnovers — one of which, yes, was on a kickoff return — was absolutely huge in this game. And, beyond that, the performance of the defensive line was practically revolutionary. Six sacks were evidence of the pressure that Orange quarterback Garrett Shrader was under a moderate amount of pressure throughout the game.

Chico Bennett (two sacks), Kam Butler (one sack and one forced fumble), Aaron Faumui (one sack), Paul Akere (one sack), and Ben Smiley (one sack) were all disruptive both in the pass rush and in stopping the run. Even when stud linebacker Nick Jackson (10 tackles and one sack) was ejected from the game due to a targeting penalty, the D-line came up clutch.

On the entire game, holding lead back Sean Tucker to only 60 yards on 21 attempts (2.9 yards per carry) and Syracuse as a team to 75 yards on 38 carries (2.0 yards per carry) was a shockingly good performance for a defense that has been significantly exposed on the ground against real competition this season. The run defense and the pass rush was the strength of the roster against Syracuse and will have to be one of the team’s stalwarts moving forward.

The road ahead is an interesting one

Speaking of the path ahead, even with the positives from the loss, sitting at 2-2 through four games is far from ideal, especially with UVA’s offensive struggles. Playing on the road against a resurgent Duke team next week doesn’t look like the cakewalk it appeared to be heading into the season, and while playing Louisville at home should be a victory, the final six games of the schedule are tough and were always going to be where the success of this 2022 Virginia team would be determined.

But, if Elliott’s squad can take care of business against Duke, Louisville, and a bad Georgia Tech team — which is a very big “if” all things considered — UVA will enter a stretch of games against Miami, UNC, Pitt, Coastal Carolina, and Virginia Tech. While neither Coastal Carolina or Virginia Tech look great, it’s not a sure thing that UVA will be favored in any one of those five contests. Even if Virginia beats Duke, Louisville, and Georgia Tech, that still leaves open the very realistic door of the Wahoos not reaching bowl eligibility for the first time since 2017. And that would be a definite disappointment considering the talent this roster did bring back.