Big plays extend Virginia’s winning streak with 55-15 pummeling of Abilene

By Jerry Ratcliffe

keytaon thompson

Virginia Cavaliers quarterback Keytaon Thompson (99) runs the ball down the field and scores a touch down during a game against Abilene Christian Wildcats on Saturday, Nov. 21 at Scott Stadium. Virginia wins 55-15 against Abilene Christian. Photo courtesy Atlantic Coast Conference (Erin Edgerton/Daily Progress).

A month ago, Virginia’s football team was plagued with Buzzard’s Luck … couldn’t kill anything, couldn’t find anything dead.

The Cavaliers, coming off their first ACC Coastal Division title and an Orange Bowl appearance, were twisting in the wind, mired in a four-game nosedive. Not exactly what Bronco Mendenhall or his legion of followers anticipated.

Saturday night, UVA won its third consecutive game _ all within the friendly confines of a near-fanless Scott Stadium _ to draw Even Steven on the season at 4-4. Behind an ever-improving quarterback in Brennan Armstrong and a defense that rediscovered its mojo, the Cavaliers are a new team. A beaten up new team, mind you (see related story), but boasting a chest-beating turnaround with new hope.

Abilene Christian came a callin’ from the heartland of Texas, to serve as Virginia’s lone nonconference game in this pandemic-marred season. The Wildcats, playing their final game of this abbreviated campaign, were no match for the Wahoos, who dominated in a 55-15 win.

While UVA’s running game was disappointing (115 yards versus an undersized Abilene defensive line that gave up 400 yards rushing to a Division II opponent a few weeks ago), the Cavaliers were full of explosive plays.

For anyone into fireworks, this was their night. Armstrong passed for a career-high 383 yards and four touchdowns as his wide receivers ran amok. The sophomore became the first Cavalier to throw at least three passes of 50 yards or more in a game. Armstrong threw four.

The most spectacular was a 90-yard catch-and-run (mostly run) to a wide-open Lavel Davis, Jr., for an early 14-0 lead. Davis’ big play was a piggyback off of UVA’s previous possession when Armstrong found tight end Tony Poljan open from 28 out.

Davis’ reception sent school stats keepers scrambling for their White-Out. The play tied for the fifth-longest pass play in program history, the longest by a UVA receiver in 15 years, tied for the fifth-longest pass play in the nation this season, the longest by any ACC player. It was also the second-longest by a true freshman in UVA history (Tyrone Davis 91-yard in 1991 vs NC State).

There was another pass to Poljan for 77 yards, a 69-yarder to Billy Kemp IV, and 66-yarder to Keytaon Thompson and a 52-yarder to Ra’Shaun Henry for a touchdown. Get this, Henry has three catches this season, all for touchdowns.

While Armstrong was passing the Wildcats dizzy, he also added a 59-yard run to his resume, while Ronnie Walker Jr., posted a 45-yard run to account for 104 of UVA’s 115 yards on the ground on a mere two of its 33 runs.

If that’s not enough offense and big plays for you, you’ve been playing too many video games.

Meanwhile, the Cavaliers defense, nicknamed havoc for obvious reasons, held Abilene to 62 yards rushing and 340 yards offense. UVA sacked two Wildcats quarterbacks four times and owned the only turnover of the game when redshirt freshman linebacker D’Sean Perry picked off an Abilene pass on the last play of the game and jetted 84 yards for a touchdown.

By that point, only the betting public was paying close attention. Virginia was a 39-½ point favorite. It won by 40 thanks to Perry’s moment in the sun, which also won him the honor of “breaking the rock.”

Mendenhall was elated that his team had regained its swagger during this homestand (UVA has won 16 of its last 18 home games).

“When we lost Brennan for two games (NC State and Wake Forest) that was a hard stretch,” the coach said in reference to Armstrong missing those games with a concussion he suffered in the first half of the State loss.

“The team was battling and the aspirations and some of the things they thought might come to fruition were then in jeopardy. They battled to give themselves a really good chance with three games remaining. They’re to be commended for their resilience and just who they are.”

Standing at 1-4 before this win streak, the Cavaliers didn’t wave a white flag even though it still had to face a Top 15 North Carolina team.

“This means a lot,” Armstrong said of getting back to .500. “The start we had wasn’t what we wanted or thought we were going to have. Getting back to 4-4, we’re ready for the homestretch against ACC opponents. It’s in our control. I’m happy we’re winning and keeping the momentum rolling.”

Much of the success over the past month has been attributed to Armstrong’s maturation as a starter for the first time after sitting behind Bryce Perkins the past two years. After throwing six interceptions in his first three games, he has been picked off only twice over the last five contests, while throwing for 975 yards and 10 touchdowns.

“[Armstrong] has gotten better every game,” Mendenhall said. “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 really a good player, a special person, good leader, and he’s just beginning.”

Virginia finishes out the regular season starting next Saturday at Florida State (the Seminoles game against Clemson was postponed due to virus issues), then a final home game against Boston College before a trip to Blacksburg to face arch-rival Virginia Tech, which was throttled at Pittsburgh.

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