For the second straight season, the Virginia football team has put together a late-season surge behind a high-scoring offense and an opportunistic though not air-tight defense. The Cavaliers won their fourth straight 2020 game at Scott Stadium with that formula, outpacing Boston College on Saturday, 43-32, to push their season record back above .500 at 5-4.
A year ago, UVA won its final four regular season games using that same recipe. The Hoos scored 30+ points in each and notched at least one take-away in three of the wins as they took down UNC 38-31, Georgia Tech 33-28, Liberty 55-27, and Virginia Tech 39-30. This season’s stretch run has taken on the same blueprint. They’ve scored 30+ points in each of the last four wins with at least one take-away in each as well as they topped UNC 44-41, Louisville 31-17, Abilene Christian 55-15, and BC 43-32.
Cavalier coach Bronco Mendenhall said he is happy with how this year’s team has bounced back from a shaky October that saw starting quarterback Brennan Armstrong miss time with a concussion and the record fall to 1-4.
“I couldn’t be happier because, as you know, I believe in will before skill,” Mendenhall said. “They said they wanted to play and things didn’t go the way we wanted to at the beginning with Brennan getting hurt and with that tough stretch in the beginning, and yet they have just kept going. Everything that we do in our program, my passion is to prepare them for their lives and for the world, and it’s so easy to stop when things get hard. It’s easier to opt out than opt in. They have just opted in and then they’ve stayed in. And that is powerful for just hardships that come in life. And I’ve tried to teach and I’ve really worked hard to help them know how powerful it is to just keep going. And certainly, having success helps that. And so, man, to have that happen now – and I made the same promise to this team as I made way back when I became the head coach – and that was that it wasn’t a matter of if, it was when. That this team, this season that we would start to have success. And that was during that hard stretch, and I believe that. I knew that. But, those words are pretty hollow until you see it. But they trusted. And now that that’s happened, again, it just is so fun to see them put that all together and realize that hard work and determination and dedication and resiliency and perseverance does matter and it does win at the end of the day in terms of well-being and happiness.”
In the latest victory, the offense led the way while the defense came up with enough key plays to hold off the Eagles.
Armstrong played a big role in that. How big? He finished with 417 yards of total offense, something that’s been done just seven times in program history and Armstrong owns two of the performances in the last two games. He also tallied 435 yards against Abilene Christian.
Against Boston College, the sophomore posted a strong game both rushing and passing. He finished with a career-high 130 rushing yards, which included a career-long 60-yard touchdown run. On that play, he kept the ball on what looked like an classic option play, found a seam, avoided one diving tackle attempt, and then beat the pursuit to the end zone.
Through the air, he recorded 287 yards on 19-of-27 passing with 1 touchdown and 1 interception. The touchdown pass was another big play strike as he hit Ra’Shaun Henry for a 47-yard scoring play. It’s the second straight game those two made a long touchdown connection as Henry scored on a 52-yard pass against ACU too. Armstrong has four games this season with at least 200+ passing, 40+ rushing, 1+ passing touchdowns. and 1+ rushing touchdowns. That’s tied for the nation’s lead.
“Yeah, I would say so. I think I’m getting better every game,” Armstrong said. “That just goes with preparation and just playing a lot more. I’m finally getting the hang of it. Knowing what I’ve got to do. Knowing what I’ve got to improve on. That’s kind of what I expected after I got a full season-ish in was to just to get better and better through each game.”
“Brennan Armstrong continues to be exceptional and continues to get better and better and better,” Mendenhall said. “To have had the start we had without Brennan, and then obviously when he’s come back and to see where the team has gone, he certainly deserves a lot of credit. Robert Anae on our offensive side of the ball, the innovation, the use of resources, the plan, the design and the yield has also been, I think, very strong in terms of matching and making the best of what we have when we have it for each game.”
Armstrong wasn’t the only quarterback giving BC trouble. Backup Keytaon Thompson caused all kinds of problems for the Eagles in his slash role as a receiver and running quarterback. Thompson scored on a 10-yard run in the first half and added a 43-yard touchdown romp in the fourth quarter. He had 9 carries for 86 yards.
UVA also got a touchdown run from Wayne Taulapapa from 1 yard out as part of a 21-yard day. The Cavaliers finished with 262 rushing yards. It marked the third time in 2020 the Cavaliers have surpassed 200 yards rushing.
Other offensive players with solid stats in the win included Billy Kemp IV, who had 6 catches for 54 yards, and Lavel Davis Jr., who had 3 catches for 66 yards. Henry added 2 catches other than his touchdown grab and finished with 95 yards, while tight end Tony Poljan joined the 3-catch club for 45 more yards. Senior kicker Brian Delaney helped the scoring cause with three field goals, including the team’s first 6 points. He became the fifth player in program history to reach 40+ made field goals for his career. He now has 42 career makes.
As a team, UVA had 549 yards of total offense. It is the first time since 2014 (Kent State and . BYU) that the Wahoos recorded 500+ yards in back-to-back games. They had 518 against Abilene Christian.
“Overall, I don’t think I used my feet as much as I thought I would have tonight,” Armstrong said. “That interception, I should have just took off on the draw, got as many yards I could. We had some nice QB runs. [Keytaon Thompson] had a heck of a game tonight with his stuff going. We felt like the QB stuff was going to be there and it paid off for us.”
While the offense continued its string of recent high-scoring games, the defense showed vulnerability in the passing game again but came up with 3 interceptions to offset some of the damage. Boston College backup quarterback Dennis Grosel, who got the start for an injured Phil Jurkovec, scorched the secondary for 520 yards on 32-of-46 passing with 4 touchdowns. That included a pair of explosive touchdowns of 25 yards or more, a 45-yard pass to Zay Flowers that became the game’s first touchdown and a 36-yard pass to tight end Hunter Long just before halftime.
Flowers caught another touchdown pass from 15 yards out as he finished with 8 catches for 180 yards. Long posted 8 catches for 109 yards.
The 3 interceptions helped keep the scoreboard damage down, though. De’Vante Cross picked off an ill-advised throw from Grosel in the second quarter at UVA’s 5-yard line. The offense went on a 95-yard drive the other way and a potential 14-6 lead for BC had turned into a 13-7 lead for Virginia instead as a result. Early in the third quarter, Nick Grant came up with another key pick. With the Hoos leading 20-17, Grosel underthrew a deep ball to Flowers and Grant wrestled the 50-50 ball away for an INT. Instead of Boston College taking the lead back, the Hoos again marched the other way as Armstrong ripped off his 60-yard scoring sprint. That gave the hosts a 10-point lead at 27-17 and it never dipped into single digits again.
The Eagles had to take to the air because the Virginia defense did shut down the running game. The Hoos allowed -7 yards rushing, the first time since 2012 against Maryland that the defense held an opponent to negative yards. That marked the fourth time this season that the D held an opponent to under 100 yards rushing.
“There’s up to six defensive linemen that are out. Five of the starting front seven that have played most of the year out,” Mendenhall said. “As you saw, Noah Taylor wasn’t with us tonight or Jahmeer Carter. We moved Tommy Christ back over from offense to defense. We played not only Su (Olasunkonmi Agunloye), but Jordan Redmond contributed at a high level. And so they’ve just done a really nice job of putting the next person in. Hunter Stewart is now helping us at outside linebacker. Matt Gahm stepped up and Elliot Brown. And so there’s new faces and new names with a similar result in the front seven. That was really helpful in helping us make, or as the game went, for Boston College just to be one dimensional and get enough pressure on the quarterback and enough sacks. And for us, in the secondary, to make just enough plays in terms of turnovers or stops to have the success we want.”
In the end, it all added up to a Senior Day win in the home finale for the Hoos. They’ve won 17 of their last 19 at Scott Stadium, a lasting legacy for the 2017 recruiting class. Senior defensive lineman Mandy Alonso, who was among 37 Cavaliers honored before the game, said it was special to win in the home finale. The Wahoos have won three straight Senior Day games.
“I mean that was extremely special and this whole game was really special to at least the whole senior class, and everyone that came here,” Alonso said. “It was just like a surreal moment. It was really special and this game was really going to define our season, and now we’re on to [Virginia] Tech, but just to appreciate this game. This was really good. It might make or break our season and we stood in defiance of that.”