Armstrong throws for 400, but he wants offense to have cutthroat mentality

By Jerry Ratcliffe

UVA quarterback Brennan Armstrong looks for an open receiver Saturday against Illinois. (Photo: UVA Athletics)

Brennan Armstrong stood in the postgame interview room, still wearing his sweat-stained eye black, full of energy, even though he had just become only the third quarterback in UVA history to throw for more than 400 yards.

The southpaw had just led Virginia’s 42-14 destruction of visiting Illinois of the Big 10 on a day where he did little, if anything wrong. Armstrong had completed 27 of 36 passes for a cool 405 and five — count ‘em, five — touchdowns. There was an interception, but as much as it caused the fiery redhead to mumble some expletives under his breath as he came off the field, the pick wasn’t his fault.

Still, nearly flawless in his opening two games of the season, leading an offense that has put up 85 points and more than 1,000 yards in wins over the Illini and William & Mary, Armstrong was still breathing fire.

Virginia left some points out there, and could have blown Illinois out of Scott Stadium in the first quarter, could have taken away the Fightin’ Illini’s will.

“I’m just trying to tell the guys, ‘Hey, don’t be satisfied, man. It’s time to keep pushing,’” Armstrong said. “I mean, we could have really knocked them out in that first quarter. We had two great drives and squandered field goals. We could have had them 28-0 right off the riff.

“I feel like we’ve got to start getting that cutthroat mentality. 28-0 in the first quarter, that’s hard to come back, especially with that momentum.”

After stumbling out of the blocks last week against FCS opponent William & Mary, the Cavaliers came out swinging against their Big 10 foe on Saturday. In fact, it was almost too easy.

Armstrong moved the team effortlessly, a 31-yard pass on the first play of the game to big tight end Jelani Woods, then hooked up with Woods two plays later for a 32-yard touchdown, towering over six-foot safety Sydney Brown. Virginia covered the 75 yards in 76 seconds.

On the next drive, UVA went 80 yards in 97 seconds, this time targeting Ra’Shaun Henry for 40 yards to the Illinois 30, then finding wide receiver Dontayvion Wicks for a 28-yard score, the first of two Wicks TD catches in the game.

At the end of the first quarter, Armstrong had already passed for 171 yards en route to 400-plus. The Cavaliers were close to the red zone when placekicker Justin Duenkel missed the first of two field goals on the day, this one from 46 yards, a later one from 36.

Illinois’ secondary couldn’t seem to stop Virginia’s wide-open passing attack, but instead of blowing out the Illini as Armstrong suggested, he took a 21-7 lead into the locker room at halftime on a six-yard scoring strike to Wicks.

The Illini actually made it a tight game, trimming UVA’s lead to 21-14 on a 75-yard scoring drive to open the third quarter, but the Cavaliers answered immediately with their own 75-yard march. This time, Armstrong was on the receiving end of a pass instead of throwing it.

Versatile Keytaon Thompson took the ball, moved to the right, then reversed it to Wicks, also a southpaw, who found Armstrong open downfield for an 18-yard gain. The drive ended on a two-yard TD pass to Billy Kemp IV, as UVA expanded the lead to 28-14 with nine minutes to play in the third quarter.

There was a major point of emphasis on a faster start this past week in practice, and it showed. Offensive coordinator Robert Anae threw a lot at Illinois’ defense and the Illini couldn’t handle it. There were so many weapons, like Thompson, who made it 35-14 with four minutes to go in the third period when down on the goal line, ran to his right, bounced off a defender, changed directions and ran over a would-be tackler and into the end zone.

Armstrong has now thrown multiple TD passes in three consecutive games and his 27 completions were a career high, connecting on seven of his first eight attempts, including six in a row. His 405 yards were the fourth-most in a single game in program history, behind only Benkert, who did it twice, and Marc Verica.

“[Armstrong] is unmatched in terms of how competitive, how tough he is in his determination,” Mendenhall said. “He had an injury of some sort and didn’t look like it affected him much.”

The quarterback was dinged on a play, taken to the medical tent and returned to the game with a brace of some sort on his right leg, which he was not wearing in his postgame chat with the media.

“It’s a great check for our program as to what will the offense look like without him,” Mendenhall said. “Luckily, the first two games we’ve had a chance to explore and see and test other players.

“Man, when you want to play 12 and 13 and 14 games, you’re going to need to see other players, then the sooner the better.”

Last week, Mendenhall and his staff saw backups Iraken Armstead and Jacob Rodriguez, while this week Armstead and Jay Woolfolk got some action.

None of those, at least not this early in their careers, have shown the passing skill of Armstrong.

Right out of the gate, Armstrong was on his game and there was little Illinois, now 1-2, could do about it.

“Everything the offense is doing, we need to start fast, complete the ball instantly, every drill,” Armstrong said. “I think we did that. We emphasize it. You feel like you’ve gotten into that rhythm faster this week. We got too fast, two touchdowns within four minutes. I mean that’s a quick start.”

Virginia didn’t focus on the run as much as the pass against the Big 10 opponent. Tailback Wayne Taulapapa rushed 10 times for 35 yards, while Armstrong was next-best with five carries for a net 31.

(Coming up Sunday: Jelani Woods is a matchup nightmare; and How about that defense?)