The Virginia football team has started slowly all season long, a trend that continued against overmatched Abilene Christian on Saturday. The two teams remained tied after the first four possessions, but that had little impact on the outcome as the Cavaliers scored touchdowns on their next six drives and cruised to a 55-15 victory in their only non-conference game of the season.
That result gave UVA its third straight win and leveled its record at 4-4 on the season with three games remaining on the current schedule.
“It means a lot. The start we had is not what we wanted or thought we were going to have,” Cavalier quarterback Brennan Armstrong said. “Just getting back to 4-and-4, we’re ready for this homestretch of our ACC opponents. We’re excited. It’s in our control. I’m just happy that we’re putting some wins together, keep the momentum rolling. Team’s at a high. We had a high morale of the team and it’s exciting for us.”
The big scoring day frequently featured explosive touchdowns. Armstrong threw three scoring passes of more than 50 yards to three different receivers and ended up with 383 passing yards, easily a new career high despite playing just two and a half quarters. He’s the first player in school history with 3 50+ yard touchdown passes in a single game. He entered the game with just 1 pass of 50 yards or more. Armstrong now has 5 games this season with at least 200 passing yards and 5 games with 2 touchdown passes or more.
Saturday’s long touchdown strikes measured 90, 56, and 52 yards. In the first quarter, Armstrong hung in the pocket long enough to allow Lavel Davis Jr. to turn inside on a deep post route and hit him in stride around the 50-yard line. Davis took care of the rest as he accelerated away from his defender and took the ball to the house. That play tied for the fifth longest pass play in program history, including a touchdown play for Harrison Davis against UNC in 1973. Davis was one of the players featured in a Virginia Sports TV video “GROUNDBREAKING: The Integration of Virginia Football” this week.
Armstrong kept the big touchdown plays flowing in the third quarter. He first benefited from a short pop pass with Keytaon Thompson in motion early in the second half. Thompson turned the ball upfield, slid through a crowd, and then broke free for the career-long touchdown of 56 yards. On the next drive, Thompson and Armstrong teamed up again as part of a trick play. Thompson took a direct snap, started to run left, and then flipped a flea flicker type toss to Armstrong behind him. Armstrong fired the ball down the middle to a wide open Ra’Shaun Henry for the easy 52-yard touchdown.
Armstrong also tossed a 28-yard to Tony Poljan for the first score of the day and that started the string of six straight scoring drives. Poljan posted 5 catches for 77 yards and 1 TD, while Billy Kemp IV had 4 catches for 69 yards. Davis and Henry had no catches other than the touchdown bombs, while Thompson added 1 more catch for 66 total receiving yards on the day. Later in the fourth quarter, backup QB Lindell Stone found freshman Demick Starling for his first career touchdown from 2 yards out.
“He’s gotten better every game,” Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall said of Armstrong. “I love the way he played to start the season against Duke. I thought he was better against Clemson. I love the way he competed at Miami. (I) loved the game against North Carolina. (I) liked a lot in the Louisville game and now here’s another one – all just different and distinct in their own way. He continues to get better and perform regardless of circumstance so he’s, he’s really a good player, a special person, good leader, and he’s just beginning. And I was so impressed by it.”
In the rushing department, Armstrong had 52 yards on 6 carries, while Ronnie Walker Jr. had 14 carries for 36 yards. Shane Simpson added 4 carries for 9 yards, but that included a pair of 1-yard touchdown runs in the first half.
UVA played its first turnover-free game of the season in the win. The Wildcats did get a safety for 2 points in the final minute when the Cavaliers called a razzle dazzle throwback pass in the end zone that failed to work. Mendenhall said after the game that the unexpected play was unintentionally called in when the play card was misread by one line. The Cavaliers finished with 518 yards of total offense.
“The whole team was on fire tonight,” Armstrong said. “I’m just happy I was able to share the wealth. We got a bunch of receivers involved. I think that’s what makes me happy the most, was getting all of my receivers involved. Seeing all those guys in the game, you know they’re smiling. I just, that’s my favorite part of the quarterback is sharing the ball with all of our receivers.”
Virginia’s defense took care of its half of the scoreboard too. Abilene Christian put together one scoring drive, a 75-yard march over 75 yards late in the second quarter, but couldn’t consistently move the football. Quarterbacks Stone Earle and Peyton Mansell combined to go 28-of-45 passing for 278 yards. Earle threw the only touchdown pass to Kobe Clark on a 2-yard scoring play in the final minute of the first half. Clark finished with 7 catches for 81 yards. The only other touchdown for the visitors came in the final two minutes of the game against all reserves, including walk-ons, when Mansell ran in from 2 yards out.
This marked the second straight week the Virginia defense held an opponent to fewer than 20 points and allowed no explosive touchdowns of 25 yards or more, something that had been a recurring issue in games earlier this season. Louisville managed just 17 points in a 31-17 win a week earlier, while Saturday’s game quickly turned into a blowout.
The defense made 3 fourth down stops as ACU repeatedly went for it during the game. Linebacker Nick Jackson led the way with 11 tackles and a pass breakup, while Zane Zandier added 7 stops too. The Wahoos managed 4 sacks; Matt Gahm, Rob Snyder, and Elijah Gaines had solo sacks, while Zandier and Noah Taylor shared a sack.
Safety D’Angelo Amos had an interception return for touchdown erased for a pass interference penalty, but the defense still created a pick-6. On the final play of the game, defensive lineman Jordan Redmond hit Mansell as he tried to throw and the ball floated in the air where linebacker D’Sean Perry intercepted it. He streaked down the visiting sidelines for an 84-yard touchdown to end the game. The Cavaliers scored a pick-6 against Louisville too when Taylor returned an INT 85 yards for the score.
“Watching D’Sean Perry score that touchdown made my whole day,” Jackson said. “That’s my guy. Last fall camp he was my roommate, so just the emotions of seeing him have that opportunity and that play was just awesome. You just feel for that guy and seeing him go all the way – he’s just a hard worker, comes in every day and he just works – and just to see that payoff for him is awesome.”
It wasn’t all good news for the defense, though. Senior star linebacker Charles Snowden left the game in the first quarter when cornerback Nick Grant crashed to the ground while attempting a tackle and Snowden’s ankle got trapped under Grant’s body. Snowden later emerged from the locker room on crutches with his lower leg already in a temporary cast. Freshman defensive end Nusi Malani, who has picked up more snaps in recent weeks, left the game as well. Amos exited later after grabbing his knee area following a kickoff play too. The Cavaliers have played without safeties Joey Blount and Brenton Nelson, who opened the season as starters, for several weeks and lost starting nose tackle Jowon Briggs to transfer this past week. Senior starter Richard Burney has also been lost for the season due to a medical issue.
Snowden had surged over the previous three games with 21 tackles and 6 sacks. Mendenhall said that he did not have an official update and didn’t feel comfortable giving out injury information after the game, but said some clarity could be announced Monday.
“Yeah, it’s the highest level of concern when we’re thin already,” Mendenhall said of the injuries. “That added to it and it was really unfortunate. It’s always hard to see players get hurt. I hate that part of the business in this job, especially the players that I have such good relationships with and just admire. So yeah, it’s an issue.”
The Cavaliers will try to figure out how to move forward despite those injury issues with a Thanksgiving weekend trip to Florida State on deck next Saturday. They’ll hit the road with a renewed sense of confidence after answering a four-game losing skid with a three-game winning streak. UVA has a 4-4 record in place with three games currently scheduled at FSU, at home against Boston College, and on the road at Virginia Tech to close out the season.
“It’s been good. You want to come out every time you step on the field and win, especially at home,” Jackson said. “Just to come out and get back to .500 this week, we have a lot of momentum going and we’re excited to keep playing this game.”