Now that the Virginia Cavaliers’ football team has one game in the books for the 2022 season, we at STL are bringing back our staff roundtables to talk about game one and, in particular, what we liked and didn’t like from the first contest of the Elliott era.
So, guys, what’s one positive and one negative conclusion you’ve taken away from week one of the 2022 UVA football season?
Positive: Dibs on Lavel Davis. How fun was that? After making a huge splash as a freshmen, Davis missed last year with a knee injury, sees that WR corps ball out all year, then makes a massive statement in his first return to action with a highlight TD catch and leading the team in receiving with 89 yards. Amazing to see — and should really excite fans for the potential this position group has for this season. The offseason media hype for Thompson and Wicks is for sure still warranted, but Davis is right there with them in potential to lead this team in yards or touchdowns this year.
Negative: Well everyone who goes after me will have to dig a little deeper after this obvious one: the run defense. It looked a lot like last year’s run defense... which I guess is to be expected, but with a new coaching staff and a lot of new faces in the defense’s front seven, I think we all had our fingers crossed that something would look improved in that facet for the ‘Hoos.
It did not. 6.8 yards per carry for Richmond’s Savon Smith on 13 carries. 4.5 yards per carry on 17 attempts from Aaron Dykes. At times, it looked like those backs were averaging double digits on their runs. It’s the biggest question mark so far — as it was for the team coming into the season — how and when will the rush defense improve? As for now, it looks like most of UVA’s opponents will be able to get anything they want by running it up the middle — and it has me extremely pessimistic about the road contests coming up.
Positive: Brennan Armstrong can still carry this offense. He led the ’Hoos in both rushing and passing yards (more like Brennan Legstrong, right?), with 105 yards on the ground and 246 yards through the air. Armstrong was also responsible for three touchdowns, including an electrifying 64-yard carry. He continued to do a good job distributing the ball amongst a talented receiving corps, even as Virginia leaned on their ground game as the contest progressed.
Negative: Can we talk about the hyper-conservative decision to kneel out the clock before the end of the first half? Chalk it up to first-time head coach nerves if you will, but there are a limited number of possessions in a football game, and conceding one of them just isn’t an acceptable strategy.
The ’Hoos got the ball back with 1:22 on the clock and three timeouts; Brennan Armstrong must’ve pulled that sort of two-minute drill off a dozen times just last season alone. At the time, it felt like UVA taking their foot off the gas with a comfortable 28-10 lead. However, things change quickly in football — two quick turnovers in the second half gave Richmond a very real opportunity to cut the deficit to just four points. With a defense that seems every bit as porous as their 2021 counterparts, no lead is too large for this team, and Elliott has to be more aggressive going forward when given opportunities to score.
Positive: We have a running game! That’s going to be critical for clock control and game management. Former walk-on Perris Jones showed explosiveness and ability to shed tacklers. Look for Cody Brown and Ronnie Walker to potentially add themselves to the committee over the coming weeks as they return from injury.
Negative: It was frustrating to have not pulled away from an FCS opponent but my biggest reason for this was operational issues. Virginia had trouble with formations, substitutions, pre-snap penalties, etc. This is to be expected with a new head coach and offensive system but must be fixed fast as Illinois is a formidable opponent.
Positive: As Pierce noted, the run defense on Saturday was less than encouraging. BUT, with that said, one thing that the ‘Hoos limited against Richmond on that side of the ball is big plays. The biggest gain the Spiders had on one play was a 20-yard run, while a 17-yard reception was the longest passing play for Richmond.
That, at the very least, is an improvement since last season. The 2021 Wahoo defense got carved up consistently as the paper thin front seven and a seemingly non-existent secondary made life easy for opposing offenses by allowing them to create scores from just a few big gains.
But, against Richmond, the 2022 UVA defense forced the Spiders to use longer drives with more plays which, according to Tony Elliott, increases the opportunities for the offense to mess up and gives the defense more chances to make stops. By containing Richmond — granted, an opponent who didn’t try to air the ball out that often — and forcing the Spiders to dink and dunk down the field. The UVA defense made its life easier and managed to limit the concerns of the run defense by stopping the bulk of Richmond’s runs from going beyond the second level.
Negative: Overall there was just too much sloppy play for the ‘Hoos on Saturday. Two fumbles, an interception, and a few bad dropped passes displayed that even UVA’s top-notch skill position players weren’t completely up to speed in the first game of the season. Had it not been for the ball bouncing off a referee and back into his hands, Mike Hollins put UVA at risk of really letting Richmond back in the game when he fumbled the ball as he was crossing the goal-line.
A career-first fumble from Dontayvion Wicks, a miss-judged throw from Armstrong when facing pressure which resulted in an interception from Armstrong, and particularly bad drops from Lavel Davis and Grant Misch all highlighted that the offense, even beyond the line, isn’t yet where it was at the end of last season. Of course, this was the season opener and there’s time for UVA to grow into the season. But such a sloppy performance won’t be easily overcome against Illinois this week.