Bronco: We came here to win, not reach benchmarks

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Brennan Armstrong (Photos: UVA Athletics)

Bronco Mendenhall believes the more his Virginia football team plays Clemson, the better the Cavaliers will get. This is how programs are built — competing against the best.

Taking on the nation’s No. 1 team in its own stomping grounds is quite a challenge, especially when Clemson has won 43 of its last 44 games in “Death Valley.” Mendenhall’s team exited this small Southern hamlet with its self respect completely intact Saturday night after falling 41-23 to the Tigers.

The 28-point underdog Cavaliers gave Clemson a dogfight, a completely different game than when the Tigers completely dominated UVA in the ACC Championship game last December in Charlotte by the count of 62-17, which could have been worse.

“We came here to win the game,” Mendenhall said after Saturday night’s game. “We didn’t come just for benchmarks. We didn’t come to be better than what we were (in December). 

“There’s a handful of plays we didn’t make. And to take another jump or to win the ACC or to become an elite program, those plays have to be made.”

The Virginia coach believed there were a handful of plays that made the difference, and Clemson made all of them.

None were bigger than a one-handed interception in the end zone that interrupted a potential huge UVA momentum swing on the Cavaliers’ opening possession in the second half. Virginia had scored just before halftime, then scored again on its second possession of the second half on a 3-yard TD pass from Brennan Armstrong to backup quarterback Keytaon Thompson.

The interception stopped the Cavaliers from scoring another touchdown in between.

UVA drove from its own 25 to the Tigers’ 19 to open the second half when a pass to freshman wide receiver Lavel Davis Jr. was picked off in the end zone on a one-handed catch by Clemson corner Andrew Booth, who appeared to have his other hand tightly grasped to Davis’ jersey.

Keytaon Thompson (99) is hoisted after his touchdown grab.

Instead of a UVA score, the Tigers marched to the Cavaliers’ 28 and settled for a 42-yard field goal and a 27-10 lead. Virginia scored on a 75-yard drive on the next possession on the pass to Thompson, cutting it to 27-17.

Who knows how a UVA TD in between might have changed the flow of the game.

There’s no question that Clemson was the superior team, but the 3-0 Tigers couldn’t bury the 28-point underdog Wahoos like they did in Charlotte.

“The game was a completely different game than a year ago and they’re not comparable,” Mendenhall said.

Still, Clemson had too many playmakers for Virginia’s defense to handle. Quarterback Trevor Lawrence, who hasn’t thrown an interception since October of 2019, showed off his accurate arm and his tough running style, while one of the nation’s top running backs, Travis Etienne, ran railroad stakes down the throats of Virginia’s ill-tackling defense.

Lawrence was 25 of 38 passing for 329 yards and three touchdowns, and used his legs to avoid Virginia’s torrid pass rush, getting trapped for sacks only twice, and rushing for 36 yards. Meanwhile, Etienne lived up to his reputation with 73 yards rushing and one score, then hauling in five passes for 114 yards and another.

Receiver Amari Rodgers was another thorn in Virginia’s secondary’s saddle with six catches for 72 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

“There’s their quarterback making someone miss in the open field, there’s a screen play and the running back breaking three tackles (for a TD),” Mendenhall barked. “Those are the kind of plays that is the next tier.”

That being said, the coach also liked his team’s toughness and resiliency.

UVA’s players must have liked Mendenhall’s determination to make Clemson sweat, too. Mendenhall rolled the dice all night in an attempt to keep within striking distance of the Tigers, going for it five times on fourth down, winning four of those.

Down 41-17 with 5:27 left in the game after big plays by Lawrence and Etienne (both playing in the fourth quarter for the first time this season), Virginia kept clawing and put up a late TD with 71 seconds to go on an Armstrong pass to tight end Tony Poljan in the back of the end zone.

Instead of rolling over and playing dead for No. 1, the Wahoos took another shot with an unsuccessful two-point conversion (which would’ve made it a two-possession game) and failed onside kick in a last act of defiance.

“We haven’t really had any adversity,” said Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, whose Tigers had steamrolled their first two opponents this season. “You hate to say it’s good for you, but it’s usually good for you. So we got a little Robitussin tonight. We were sloppy. We could have put the game away.”

But the Tigers didn’t. 

“I want to take my hat off to Virginia and Bronco,” Swinney said. “I thought they did a heck of a job. That team is going to win some games, no doubt about it. Just what I thought I would see as far as that quarterback. He’s a very good player. They created some problems for us.”

Armstrong, making only the second start of his career, started slow for the second straight time, but just like in last week’s strong finish in UVA’s 38-20 win over Duke, he gave Clemson’s experienced defense issues at times.

The left-hander started the game 1 for 9 passing, but finished in a flurry by completing 23 of his last 34 attempts for 270 yards and three TDs and was sacked three times.

He joined Matt Blundin (1989-90) as the only quarterback in UVA history to pass for 200-plus yards in each of his first two starts.

Armstrong, who Swinney said earlier in the week reminded him of a young Steve Young (San Francisco 49ers Hall of Famer), led the Cavaliers in rushing as well, with his 22 attempts for 89 yards, keeping the Tigers defense off balance. Armstrong actually rushed for 105 yards but had 16 taken away by the sacks.

Perhaps his only flaws were the two interceptions, particularly the one to start the second half, one he would like to have back.

“Just looking back, the main thing was we were marching down the field in the second half and that was gonna be a big score for us, get some momentum starting the second half,” Armstrong said of his performance. “The pick in the end zone, that would have really swung it, honestly.

“That’s the one thing I look back on, the pick in the end zone, that kind of hurt us. I think we would have scored there, would have had good momentum and the outcome of the game, just the score of the game could have looked a lot different.”

Still, even had the Cavaliers made it an even closer game, the Tigers still had Lawrence and Etienne. Both earned respect from Virginia senior defensive back Joey Blount.

Joey Blount

“I think [Etienne] is one of the best players in college football,” Blount said of the Tiger senior. “He showed that today. There were a lot of plays left on the field that we had him in the position we wanted, but he didn’t wait. With his athleticism and his game, he made it for himself and got out of the situations we had him in.

“We need to be better at tackling, pursuits of the ball and really just wrapping up. There were a lot of missed tackles as a team where it looked like we had him, and he made a play out of nothing.”

Etienne and Lawrence played roles in Clemson’s third-down conversion success (8 of 15), at least four of which were at least third-and-nine. That kept Virginia’s defense on the field longer than desired and wore the Cavaliers down.

Still, 1-1 after a competitive game against one of the nation’s elite programs had to give Mendenhall & Company confidence going forward. The Cavaliers host NC State next Saturday.

Comments

  1. Frank says:

    Losing by 18 is a lot closer than losing by 45, and we beat the spread as well. But I like the fact that there were plenty of players feeling like they could’ve, should’ve done better — and maybe even pull off the upset. No one in their right mind would have had those thoughts last year.

  2. Bill says:

    Armstrong can’t start games 1-9 passing against good teams. We were down 24-3 before he got untracked, then played them even the rest of the way. What can we do to help him be more efficient and in the groove from the beginning?

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