After an encouraging 2020 campaign, and a top tier 2021 season, Virginia Cavaliers quarterback Brennan Armstrong has taken a major step back in 2022. Of course, some of the situation is out of his control. The offensive line has regressed from one of the top units in the conference to one of the worst. Armstrong has also been introduced to an entirely different system than what he was accustomed to for his first four years in the program. However, many of his intangibles that led to previous successes have simply disappeared.
Let’s take a dive into some of the plays from the most recent game against Syracuse as a case study for his play through four contests this season.
Here is a play early in the game on a key third down. Virginia allowed an early touchdown and is threatening to answer right back. As usual, Syracuse calls an exotic, delayed blitz package, but Armstrong picks that one up. He correctly reads Keytaon Thompson running open down the seam and simply needs to get it over the corner and avoid the high safety. The ball is simply overthrown. Yes, the timing gets disrupted by the arrival of the blitzing linebacker. But this is a play Armstrong would have executed flawlessly last season.
Armstrong’s inaccuracies plagued him throughout this game. Even factoring out drops, his adjusted completion percentage was just 58.3% (14th in the ACC). In Armstrong’s first two seasons, that number was 68.3% and 74.1%, respectively. This regression is surprising and uncommon. Even with a new playbook, accuracy is a trait that usually carries over. Clearly, he lacks the necessary confidence right now.
Here is another situation in the first quarter where Syracuse has a lead but the momentum may be slightly shifting towards the ‘Hoos. The defense had just made a critical stop in the red zone to prevent a two-touchdown deficit. Armstrong runs into his own teammate and fumbles the football right back to the Orange.
Armstrong’s struggles in holding onto the football on the move have been prevalent throughout his college career. Last season, he fumbled the ball nine times and this year, he has already done so once per game. These issues have just been exaggerated by the fact that he constantly needs to evade the pocket and scramble. Yards are not easy to come by anymore so Armstrong feels the need to run through contact. The occasional fumble did not look so bad when he passed for nearly 4,500 yards, but it has become killer this season.
Here is another key point in the game. Virginia had clawed its way back into a contest which once appeared all but over. John Rudzinski’s defense forced a turnover just for Armstrong to give it right back.
This was another uncharacteristic play for such an experienced quarterback. The above camera angle does not show it, but there is a check down available on the left side of the field. Armstrong, instead, stares Grant Misch down, steps into the throw, and lofts the pass into heavy traffic to a low volume tight end. The defensive back, who was originally accounting for the receiver running out of his break into a post route, reads this play and grabs the easy interception.
Armstrong’s turnover-worthy play rate was 2.9% in 2020, 3.5% in 2021, and has skyrocketed to 6.1% in 2022. That’s bad.
Here is what ends up being the final play of the game. Virginia needs a clutch drive from their signal caller and with the clock winding down, it is fourth and short. Armstrong can keep it alive by checking the ball down to a fairly open Thompson in the flat, who, with correct ball placement, can easily pick up the first down and get out of bounds. Instead, Armstrong seems insistent on getting the ball to Lavel Davis Jr., even when the play is essentially unavailable.
Sticking to one read was a theme for Armstrong throughout this game. Whereas his vast success came from his ability to process progressions with complex route trees last year, that skill has seemingly been lost.
Armstrong has clearly regressed as a quarterback, which leaves us naturally confused. In theory, running a productive offense is still within Armstrong’s capabilities, and he just needs to find it mentally. However, it is clear at this point that he will not be producing 350+ yard games with consistency.
Some fans have called for backup Jay Woolfolk to get a chance, but I am far from ready for that. His time will come next season, but the most upside comes from Armstrong and it is not particularly close. Plus, Woolfolk is inexperienced so he is not necessarily the safe, game manager option either.
Duke head coach Mike Elko’s defense is known for diverse fronts and the ability to mix man and zone pressures. They might not have the most talented personnel, but Armstrong will be tested in his ability to read defenses once again. How he performs on Saturday could go a long way to indicate if he can return to a similar quality of play as last season, even if that is with a far lesser quantity of production.