In a new series we’ll be doing at times this football season, we’re evaluating individual Virginia Cavaliers on their performances in individual games by categorizing them as “Winners,” “Losers,” or — to add some nuance — “I don’t knows,” from the most recent contest. These will be aided by PFF’s grades for the Wahoos.
With that, let’s jump into looking at the winners, losers, and I don’t knows from the Syracuse loss.
Just getting this out of the way for the snarky comments, lol. Cuse won this game. The Orange probably didn’t deserve to with their second half performance. But Shrader and company did enough in the final minutes to earn the W. Kudos to them.
One of the few bright spots for the offense, Jones was the highest graded offensive player for the ‘Hoos according to PFF. He finished with 87 yards on the ground and one touchdown on thirteen carries (6.7 yards per carry) along with one catch for four yards. He should’ve been incorporated into the offensive game plan more, particularly in the first half when the offense couldn’t string together a legitimate scoring drive. But this was another good showing from UVA’s obvious lead back as he’s starting to prove his consistency on a game-to-game basis.
After taking over for starting center Ty Furnish for a drive against ODU, Johnson seemingly seized the job from him against Syracuse after the first few drives. Johnson was billed as the starting center heading into fall camp and while he did struggle a bit in pass protection against the Orange, he was still better than Furnish and looked particularly adept in the run game as he opened up holes for Jones to run through. It will be interesting to see how the staff handles the center position moving forward and whether or not Johnson is the starter versus Duke next week.
While there weren’t many winners for the ‘Hoos on offense, John Rudzinski is the man who probably deserves the most praise in the program at this moment in time. Through four games he’s turned around a defense which was catastrophically bad in 2021 into arguably the strength of the team this season. Even with the major offensive struggles, Rudzinski’s defense means that this team has still been competitive.
Chico Bennett Jr.
Bennett entered this season with 30 career tackles and 0.5 career sacks. On Friday he took Garrett Shrader down twice and totaled four tackles, bringing his season total to four sacks and 17 tackles. The starting BANDIT for the ‘Hoos has been disruptive in the pass rush and a critical component of the recent success of the defensive line.
Fentrell Cypress Jr.
The highest graded defensive player per PFF for Virginia on Friday, Cypress II was tremendous against the Orange. On seven targets, he only allowed two catches for 11 yards which contributed to the Wahoo defense’s containment of an explosive Cuse attack. He’s been solid so far this season and has provided a stable presence at outside corner on the opposite side of Anthony Johnson.
James Jackson & Hunter Stewart
With Josh Ahern suffering an injury in the first half and missing the remainder of the game and Nick Jackson being thrown from the game due to a targeting call with just over five minutes left in the third quarter, UVA’s linebacker depth proved itself against the Orange.
In his most snaps in a game yet, James Jackson displayed his growing comfort in the defense while Hunter Stewart was a worthy replacement for Nick Jackson, particularly in the running game. With Ahern’s status for next week unknown and Nick Jackson set to miss the first half of the Duke game this coming Saturday due to the suspension from the targeting call, Stewart and Jackson will have additional opportunities to prove their worth in a defense which only plays two linebackers on the field in its base defense.
It might be questionable to put Bettridge as a winner considering all he did was make one extra point and then have his second one blocked. But merely the fact that he replaced Brendan Farrell after the veteran missed two field goals against Syracuse (and another against ODU) suggests that the staff may now shift the place kicking duties to the heralded freshman. It always seemed like Bettridge would win the job with how Elliott was speaking of him during fall camp.
Again, fairly obvious one here. The Wahoos simply made too many mistakes to pull this one out. Defense was on point throughout the game and gave the offense plenty of opportunities that, in the end, it couldn’t cash in on consistently enough.
Almost as obvious as the team’s status as the loser of this game, UVA’s once electric quarterback is yet to show meaningful evidence that he’s anywhere close to the player he was last season. Armstrong is telegraphing throws by locking in on his targets, missing guys short because of faulty mechanics, and trying to do too much to alleviate his bad play which is resulting in turnovers. In four games, Armstrong has four total touchdowns (three passing, one rushing), four interceptions, and three fumbles.
His 19-38 passing for 138 yards, one touchdown, and an interception against Syracuse did little to improve upon a rough start for the Wahoo signal caller. Of course, a mediocre to bad offensive line has made life difficult for him, as have receivers prone to drops. But were Armstrong playing at his 2021 level, UVA would’ve beaten Syracuse on Friday night.
That’s not to say he can’t bounce back and be the winner UVA fans know him to be. It takes time to get comfortable in a new system and he’s got a lot working against him right now. Hopefully for Virginia, he finds his footing soon and can spur this offense forward.
The Armstrong to Wicks connection still seems off. On 10 targets against Syracuse, Wicks had just five catches for 42 yards. Wicks had another drop on Friday and just seems to be in his head both with his route-running technique and when catching the ball. Not much to say here other than he’s gotta step it up.
While his replacement Johnson is a winner, Ty Furnish is a definite loser from the Syracuse contest as he was benched after 17 snaps. Furnish has been one of the weaker links on the line so far this season and the decision to put Johnson in was clearly one that had been planned should the sophomore starter continue to struggle. I’d expect Johnson to be the starter moving forward as the decision to disrupt the line’s continuity was one that the staff probably didn’t take lightly. Hopefully, as the season progresses, at least one of Johnson or Furnish can prove themselves as a consistently reliable option.
While Furnish was benched against Syracuse for his poor play, Jonathan Leech continues to get a surprising leash despite his consistently bad play at right tackle. Once considered the most veteran presence on such an inexperienced line, he’s been a weakness for the position group and graded out as Virginia’s worst offensive lineman against the Orange.
There is, however, not an obvious replacement for Leech at right tackle like there is for Furnish at center. While freshman McKale Boley could be the guy, it appears that he’s not comfortable playing on the right which is why current left tackle Logan Taylor played RT (with Boley at LT) before switching over to the left when Leech returned from injury. Presumably, Elliott and O-line coach Garrett Tujague view the Taylor-LT and Leech-RT pairing as better than Boley-LT and Taylor-RT.
Still though, Leech needs to step it up or risk being replaced.
It seems like Farrell has lost the job to freshman Will Bettridge after missing three field goals in two games. Considering his career-long of 43 yards, missing 51 and 49-yarders seems less on the kicker and more on the staff for putting him in a position to fail. But Tony Elliott’s obvious frustration with him after missing the second attempt seems to indicate that the staff expected him to be able to hit from those distances.
I don’t knows
This is a hard game to evaluate Elliott on. On the downside, his team continues to struggle with the minutiae of the game as the Wahoo offense turned the ball over twice, the team had 12 penalties result in a net loss of 106 yards, Elliott had his kicker attempt kicks that were six and eight yards beyond his career-long after showing no signs of being able to hit from those distances, and the altogether lackluster first half for the offense.
Yet, Virginia did come roaring back in the second half. The offense kicked things into gear, and Elliott also deserves credit for the team’s defensive showing. UVA was a few plays away from winning this game and, had that happened, there would be immense praise due for the head Wahoo following such an unlikely comeback.
Experience is experience for a relatively young head coach and this was just his second road game as the guy so there’s time for him and his staff to clean up the small things with this team. But this was altogether a mediocre to poor result for UVA’s leader.
Similar to Elliott, Kitchings had an up and down game in the loss to Syracuse. His first half play-calling didn’t rely on the running game enough with the passing game far too basic especially as Armstrong and his receivers weren’t making difficult completions down the field. The second half decision making was far better though as Kitchings put his players in positions to succeed. The call to run the ball with Keytaon Thompson on the goal line in particular was fantastic.
I’m still uncertain about how I feel about Kitchings as the play caller. One would think that as Elliott grows more comfortable as the HC he could take over play-calling duties especially with the success he had doing so at Clemson.
Jackson had a great outing up until his targeting penalty got him ejected from the game. In all honesty, while Jackson did make contact with Shrader’s helmet, the call seemed a bit soft all things considered. But it still lands him among the I don’t knows.
Outside of that hit, though, Jackson was critical to holding Syracuse’s rushing game to a mere 75 yards on 38 carries as he finished with 10 tackles (six of which were solo), one sack, and a tackle for loss. He consistently made plays on the ball and prevented Syracuse from breaking any long runs. Ideally, next week’s first half suspension will be the only meaningful time he misses for the rest of this season because Jackson has an immense impact as the leader and best playmaker on the UVA defense.
Thompson had a couple of big moments on Friday including a rushing touchdown that was reminiscent of how he was used under Bronco Mendenhall and Robert Anae. The sixth year player also led Virginia in receiving with eight catches for 55 yards as he did well making plays in space. Yet, he also had a bad drop and was quiet outside of designed touches.
After a breakout game against Old Dominion, Brown only registered one carry and four total snaps against Syracuse. On said carry he appeared to stumble and fell forward for a gain of one yard. He’s in the I don’t know category because he didn’t play poorly on Friday, he just didn’t play. And that’s fairly surprising after he looked so good against the Monarchs last week. Perris Jones did fine in his absence, but hopefully the true freshman Brown will see more touches moving forward with UVA needing to rely more on its running attack.