Armstrong delivers after shaky start to lead Virginia to sixth straight over Duke

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Armstrong

Seemed all the pressure in the world was on Brennan Armstrong’s ample shoulder pads.

While he had played and delivered as a backup to Bryce Perkins the past two years, it was now his show. Virginia’s sophomore quarterback had to feel that the eyes of Wahoo Nation were analyzing every move he made as he debuted as the Cavaliers starter.

There were times in UVA’s 38-20 win over visiting Duke on Saturday night when Virginia fans were covering their eyes when Armstrong struggled, was off target, or threw an untimely interception. They weren’t jumping off bridges or anything, but some of them wondered aloud — at least, on social media during the game — if he was the right guy.

That mood changed considerably in the fourth quarter when Armstrong’s arm heated up and he led the Cavaliers to a 21-0 surge after the Blue Devils had reclaimed the lead, 20-17, following an Armstrong interception deep in his own territory.

When Virginia returned to its run game — behind strong performances from starter Wayne Taulapapa and Towson transfer Shane Simpson — late in the third quarter, it took a little pressure off Armstrong and instead put some pressure on Duke’s defense.

On that same drive that moved into the fourth quarter, Armstrong got hot.

He completed 7 of his next 8 passes, leading UVA on scoring marches of 94 and 49 yards, both ending on spectacular receptions by the Cavaliers’ best-kept-secret, rangy freshman receiver Lavel Davis, Jr., for touchdowns, completely changing the game.

After it was over, Bronco Mendenhall and Armstrong were elated with the win after waiting 12 weeks to open the season, and both were looking to the future for better things from the new Wahoos quarterback.

“It takes time,” Mendenhall said. “This was Brennan’s first start and Lavel’s first college football game. The good news is that the future looks bright. The other good news is that it just takes time. We’re still finding our formula.

“I was encouraged by the running game between Wayne [Taulapapa] and Shane Simpson. Our pass game wasn’t as consistent.”

Everyone knew Virginia’s defense was going to be nasty, returning 17 players that had started at least one game. It delivered with seven Duke turnovers and five quarterback sacks, as the Cavaliers beat the Blue Devils for the sixth consecutive time.

All eyes were on Armstrong and the offense. After Perkins had led Virginia to the ACC Coastal Division title and a spot in the Orange Bowl last season, breaking the school’s all-time career total offense record in just two seasons, what does one do for an encore?

Armstrong wasn’t deterred as he put forth his best debut as a starter.

For the record, the left-hander completed 24 of 45 passes for 269 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. He also rushed 10 times for 47 yards and a score (4.7 yards per carry).

The fact that he connected with a virtually unknown target in the freshman Davis, four times for 101 yards and two TDs, took everyone — including the Blue Devils — by surprise. Duke, which dropped to 0-3 on the season with the loss, had no game tape in order to scout the Cavaliers, who obviously hadn’t played a game, so Davis was a complete secret.

“He’s one of our best-kept secrets,” Mendenhall smiled. “It’s hard to hide 6-foot-7 for 12 weeks of practice. The same plays that he made tonight, he’s been making against us almost every day.”

According to Mendenhall, Davis, who is from Dorchester, S.C., wasn’t heavily recruited and was viewed sort of as a project. But UVA’s coaching staff fell in love with the guy from the very beginning.

“I see a very bright future for [Davis] as he learns, grows and develops,” Mendenhall said.

Armstrong was proud of his teammates for getting to this point, referring to no positive Covid-19 tests week after week of an extremely long training camp, and for coming together to win the opening game.

“I needed to be more consistent and I will continue to grow,” Armstrong said. 

Mendenhall felt his new starting quarterback was poised throughout the game and that he will learn and improve repetition after repetition.

“It takes time, but consistency takes time,” the coach said. “He’s tough, he’s a competitor. He got off to a slow start, but momentum was being built on every repetition.”

The Cavaliers posted 450 yards of total offense on the Blue Devils, and one of the aspects Mendenhall was encouraged by was a stronger ground game. UVA had 188 yards rushing on 37 attempts (5.1 yards per rush) against a Duke multiple front that wasn’t easy to run against.

Virginia has struggled to run the ball successfully throughout Mendenhall’s time in Charlottesville, but behind its most experienced line during that era, Taulapapa and Simpson displayed physical running styles that kept the Devils’ defense on its heels for the most part.

Taulapapa, the returning starter, had 95 yards and two TDs on 16 carries (5.9 yards per carry). Simpson had 8 carries for 36 yards (4.5), and Armstrong rushed 10 times for 47 (4.7) and a score.

“I think Wayne is more experienced but he’s also stronger and more physical, but he is having another player in Shane Simpson in helping carry the load,” Mendenhall said. “So they’re kind of playing off each other in terms of running hard, running physical and running each run likes it’s their last one.”

Armed with a stingy, punishing defense and an offense with exciting possibilities, Virginia is off to a solid start for a season opener.

Now comes the task of taking the show on the road and measuring itself against the nation’s No. 1 team at Clemson.

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