A special performance from quarterback Brennan Armstrong and a stout defensive effort propelled the University of Virginia football program to a 42-14 victory over Illinois on Saturday. For just the second time in Bronco Mendenhall’s sixth season as head coach, UVA starts the season with a 2-0 record.
Armstrong, a redshirt junior beginning his second full season as UVA’s starting quarterback, established career-highs in completions (27), passing yards (405) and passing touchdowns (5) while adding 31 yards rushing and 18 yards receiving in today’s win. His passing yards performance ranks fourth in school history, while the five touchdowns ranks tied for second.
Unlike the season opener, Armstrong and the Virginia offense was firing on all cylinders from the start.
UVA needed just two possessions to take a 14-0 first quarter lead. Armstrong accounted for all 75 yards – 58 passing, 17 rushing – on the game’s opening drive, a 4-play, 75-yard march that ended with a 32-yards touchdown pass from the lefty signal caller to tight end Jelani Woods. Woods had two receptions for 63 yards on the drive, on his way to five catches for 122 yards and a score on the day.
Following a three-and-out from the Cavalier defense, Armstrong and company struck again quickly, driving 80 yards on four plays. Wide receivers Ra’Shaun Henry and Dontayvion Wicks hauled in catches of 39 and 28 yards on the drive, with Wicks’ catch accounting for the second touchdown of the game.
“When you see the offensive hot, you just wanna get the ball back to them as soon as possible,” Virginia senior safety Joey Blount said of the offense’s quick start. “It’s kind of just makes a defense more energetic, to get three and out quick and I think with offense playing well, the defense played really well; complementary football’s what we always hone in and try to aim towards every game. I think today was a really good example of the defense having a strong, strong output and the offense coming out hot. Hitting Jelani [Woods], hitting those receivers on a one on one matchup, I think they did a really good job.”
Illinois (1-2) settled into its first road game of the season in the second quarter, cutting Virginia’s lead to 14-7 on quarterback Artur Sitkowski’s 33-yard touchdown strike to wide receiver Deuce Spann. The Hoos responded, holding the Fighting Illini scoreless the rest of the second quarter while tacking on another touchdown – a 6-yard TD from Armstrong to Wicks to finish a 7-play, 62-yard drive. Virginia led at the half, 21-7.
Illinois delivered a touchdown on the opening drive of the second half, marching 75 yards on four plays. Running back Chase Brown’s 21-yard touchdown run cut UVA’s lead to 21-14. Once again, Virginia responded. The Hoos scored touchdowns on consecutive possessions, retaking control of the game with a 35-14 third quarter lead. Armstrong’s fifth touchdown pass, a 3-yard pass to running back Wayne Taulapapa in the fourth quarter, was the final score of the afternoon.
Illinois’ impressive opening drive of the second half proved to be an aberration. Following that possession the Cavalier defense forced three punts, two turnover-on-downs, and two turnovers on the Illini’s final seven offensive possessions. Linebacker Noah Taylor led the defensive charge with seven tackles including four solo efforts, two sacks and two tackles for loss. Graduate transfer cornerback Anthony Johnson impressed with two pass breakups, an interception, and a tackle-for-loss. Four different defenders – Taylor, Nick Jackson, Antonio Clary and Joey Blount – totaled seven tackles. Virginia finished with three sacks and two turnovers.
“We played consistent for the majority of the game,” Virginia football head coach Bronco Mendenhall said of his defense. “There was very few breakdowns and very few things that didn’t fit exactly right. When we didn’t, Illinois exploited those on both drives, but it’s a really nice start to the season defensively. So far, it’s a football team with a lot of contributors and I really like that in terms of just our identity.”
The defense played well, but UVA’s passing attack was the story. The Cavaliers totaled 423 yards passing on the day, 301 of which came on 11 “big pass plays” (plays of 15 yards or more). Of Armstrong’s 27 completions, nine were completions of over 20 yards, and four of those completions went for over 30 yards. Wide receiver Dontayvion Wicks was in on the “big play” passing action as well, finding Armstrong on a reverse pass for 18 yards.
Six Cavalier receivers hauled in two or more passes against Illinois, including Woods, Kemp IV (6 receptions for 55 yards and a touchdown), Keytaon Thompson (5 receptions for 68 yards), Ra’Shaun Henry (3 receptions for 74 yards), Wicks (3 receptions for 69 yards and two touchdowns) and running back Mike Hollins (2 catches for 11 yards).
“Yeah, I think it is production oriented, but it’s the diversity is really where it is the most impressive,” Mendenhall said of his team’s offense. “Brennan, I think threw for 400 today, but the size of the chunks that are happening are increasing in the number of targets, so when you see Jelani downfield, you see Ra’Shaun Henry downfield and you see Dontayvion Wicks downfield, it just starts to build. It’s hard to narrow down on four different or five different threats and with a quarterback that’s making good decisions and fast decisions, throwing accurately, that’s leading to points. What we saw today is it certainly could have been more with some field goal attempts and one turnover; but just lots and lots of positive things happening.”
Keytaon Thompson picked up UVA’s only rushing touchdown of the day, bulling in from eight yards out to give his team a 35-14 advantage. The Hoos’ offense totaled 133 yards rushing on 33 carries, while the defense limited Illinois’ rushing attack to 116 yards on 27 carries. Illinois totaled 337 yards of offense, but 106 of those yards came in the fourth quarter, after UVA had taken a 42-14 lead.
Following a 2-0 start, Virginia now takes to the road for its first ACC matchup, a 7:30 p.m. tilt in Chapel Hill against North Carolina next Saturday. UVA, which improved to 19-2 at home since 2018 with today’s win, is 6-19 on the road in the Mendenhall era. Two of those victories have come at UNC.
– Highlights …
– Tight end Jelani Woods has arrived, folks. Woods was limited against William & Mary due to cramps, but against Illinois he showed why the UVA coaches were so excited about his arrival. After the game, he was chosen to break the rock.
— Virginia Football (@UVAFootball) September 11, 2021
– Kemp IV, Wicks, Ra’Shaun Henry and Keytaon Thompson all had strong performances at receiver, I thought.
– Offensive tackle Bobby Haskins was again a significant part of the O-Line rotation. He exited with an injury in the fourth quarter but appeared to be okay.
– Six UVA defenders were in the tackles for loss category: Taylor (2), Blount (1), Grant (1), Stewart (1), Clary (0.5) and Anthony Johnson (0.5). In addition to Taylor’s two sacks, Hunter Stewart notched a sack as well. Four Hoos had one quarterback hurry: Jackson, Aaron Faumui, Michael Diatta, Ben Smiley III.
– Defensive lineman Adeeb Atariwa did not play because of injury. He was banged up in fall camp, played last week, but sat out this week. True freshman Michael Diatta (two tackles, one QB hurry) saw extensive time, as did redshirt sophomore Ben Smiley III (one tackle, one QB hurry). Smiley missed last week with an injury.
– Virginia’s two forced turnovers came in the fourth quarter. The first was an interception by Anthony Johnson. The second was a fumble recovery by true freshman linebacker West Weeks. Safety Nick Grant forced the fumble.
– Anthony Johnson and Nick Grant led the Hoos with two pass breakups apiece. Taylor, De’Vante Cross and Elijah Gaines each had a pass breakup as well.