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Three players, two matchups, and one prediction for Virginia football vs NC State

Breaking down the matchup between the Cavaliers and the Wolfpack.

VMI v NC State Photo by Lance King/Getty Images

At 0-3, the Virginia Cavaliers badly need a win before this season completely gets away. You could argue that the Wahoos aren’t that far away from being 2-1, as they have led by double-digits in both of the past two games. But overall, the play simply has not been good enough.

As a team, Virginia currently ranks 120th in total defense and 113th in total offense. That’s how you end up 0-3. Based on ESPN’s SP+ rankings, Virginia ranks 94th. NC State currently ranks 46th, better than JMU but worse than Tennessee and Maryland.

The Wolfpack come in at 2-1, with wins over UCONN and VMI, and a predictable loss to Notre Dame. The UCONN game was far closer than the Pack would’ve liked, even on the road.

In case you aren’t tracking, there will be a number of familiar faces on the NC State sideline. Former UVA offensive coordinator Robert Anae is in the same role for the Pack, as is former UVA OL coach Garrett Tujague. Finally, and most notably, record-setting Virginia QB Brennan Armstrong is now playing in Raleigh.

Armstrong had a tremendous season for the Wahoos under Anae in 2021, but struggled badly in the new offense last season. Though there shouldn’t be any hard feelings on either side, Armstrong would love to come back to Scott Stadium and play a great game in leading his team to victory.

Game Time: Friday, Sept 22, 7:30PM Eastern
Streaming: ESPN3

Three Players to Watch

QB Brennan Armstrong

Going to NC State to reunite with Anae seemed like a pretty good idea for Brennan. He was great with Anae in 2021. Through three games in 2023, he has completed 63% of his passes, averaging 6.5 ypa, with 3 TDs and 3 INTs. He is also their leading rusher with 161 yards on 37 carries (4.4 ypc).

Those numbers aren’t great. But he was bad against Notre Dame (22/47 for 260 yards, 2 TD, 3 INT). Against VMI last week, Armstrong was an outstanding 27/32 for 264 yards. Only 1 TD, but no turnovers. But that’s VMI.

Just in case you’ve forgotten what Armstrong can do, here’s his highlight reel from 2021.

Seriously, watch that. It’s the most fun a Virginia football fan can have these days. Armstrong hasn’t been that player since then. He’s been okay for the Pack. Solid, but far from great.

This game could very well hinge on Armstrong’s ability to handle playing at Scott Stadium as an opposing QB. If Armstrong plays like the player he was in 2021, Virginia doesn’t have a prayer. But if we see last year’s Armstrong, well then Virginia may have a chance.

LB Payton Wilson

Last year’s Wolfpack defense was, by most measures, one of the best in the nation. They finished 18th in total defense, 11th in scoring defense, 10th in rushing defense, 12th in passing efficiency defense. They were also 3rd in interceptions and 19th in third down defense.

The LB corps was probably the strength of that unit. Two of those guys are in the NFL now, leaving Wilson who had 12.5 TFLs and 4.5 sacks. Through three games this year, he has more than double the tackles of anybody else. He also had this interception, sealing the win against UCONN.

Wilson is a guy who lives in the backfield, but he can also drop back into coverage and make plays like this. This defense is very good, and Wilson is probably the best player on it.

CB Aydan White

This defense is good because of their experience. They lost multiple players to the NFL, and still had ten returning starters. Two 2021 starters returned after missing all of 2022 due to injury. White was first team All-ACC at CB last year.

He led the team with 4 INTs, including a pick six. He also had 9 passes defended, a sack and a 4 TFLs. White didn’t play last week against VMI, but he’ll be back for this one. He hasn’t picked one off yet this year, and surely he’ll be itching after watching film of the fourth quarter last week.

We may see Tony Muskett back in the lineup this week. Maybe that’s the safer play, after seeing that fourth quarter. Colandrea sure is exciting though. Whichever QB is out there, they’ll likely try to avoid White as much as possible. Look for more opportunities for Virginia’s younger WRs, as White will likely cover either Malachi Fields or Malik Washington on most plays.

Two Key Matchups

Virginia OL vs NC State DL

Yeah, this again. The OL is always important, and when they struggle it is very noticeable. They actually weren’t all that bad against Maryland. The OL received their best grades of the season (per PFF) in both pass blocking and run blocking.

But they still allowed 3 sacks and the team rushed for just 91 yards. (One of those sacks was the QBs fault if we’re honest.)

NC State’s DL is better than Maryland’s. Davin Vann is the leading returning pass rusher, and already has 2 sacks.

This is just a jailbreak from NC State’s defense. Sam Hartman barely had time to look up. Vann with the hit and forced fumble. This is what Virginia was facing all game long against Tennessee. If that continues against this defensive front, it could be another disaster.

Virginia DBs vs NC State WRs

The hope for the Wolfpack was that they would recreate the magic that Robert Anae had with Brennan Armstrong. That 2021 season was full of deep passes to Dontayvion Wicks with Keytaon Thompson, Jelani Woods, and Billy Kemp running underneath routes. Wicks and Woods are in the NFL, Kemp is starting at Nebraska, and Thompson is apparently playing in the XFL.

NC State simply doesn’t have that level of talent at WR. They lost three of their top four receivers, from a unit which wasn’t particularly dynamic last year. As a team, they ranked 109th in yards per completion last year. This year’s team is 105th.

Virginia’s secondary has not played well this season. They’ve been beaten deep too often.

Opposing receivers have been wide open far too often.

There is a lot of youth on this defense. On the second clip here, freshman LB Kam Robinson gets lost in traffic, allowing the RB to be wide open on the game winning TD for JMU. All the injuries to this defense are testing depth for the Wahoos that simply may not be ready yet.

The secondary was expected to be a strength of this team, and thus far that has not been the case. The Wahoos are 104th in pass defense and 117th in pass efficiency defense. They are making opposing QBs look very good. They really need to get stops, and a turnover or two would certainly help.

One prediction

It certainly seemed, in the first quarter last week, that Virginia was on their way to their first win of the season. Then they ‘Hoos had chances to tie the game up in the second half. They got into the red zone, down 7. And then it all fell apart.

That’s two weeks in a row the Wahoos fell apart in the fourth quarter. Not a good trait for a football team. This is a very young team, and has had a very young QB for the past two weeks. Hopefully, this is a learning experience for the team, and they can build off the positive aspects of the past two games.

Since it doesn’t seem like the injury bug is going away any time soon, the ‘Hoos will just have to play better. After this game, things get a little easier, but NC State is too good to lose to this Virginia team.

Prediction: Wolfpack 27, Virginia 14