Column: Critical errors down the stretch extend Virginia’s losing streak at Wake Forest

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Keytaon Thompson (Photos: UVA Athletics)

Virginia’s great quarterback experiment made its debut in Winston-Salem on Saturday, as the Cavaliers unleashed a three-headed monster. Like most experiments with monsters, it failed.

A 1-point favorite going into the game, UVA couldn’t generate enough offense to keep up with host Wake Forest, while a disappointing Cavalier defense and special teams made too many mistakes as the Demon Deacons rolled to a 40-23 win.

Deadlocked at 23-all with 13 1/2 minutes remaining in the game, Virginia’s defense collapsed, its special teams weren’t so special, and the offense ran out of gas.

For a defense that was hailed as one of the most experienced and talented in the ACC, the Cavaliers have now given up 119 points during their three-game losing streak (40, 38 and 41). With a road trip to nationally ranked Miami, followed by a home game with North Carolina looming dead ahead, Bronco Mendenhall has little time to get things back together.

This is UVA’s longest losing streak since the end of the 2017 season, when the Cavaliers dropped their last four games.

With starting quarterback Brennan Armstrong unable to answer the bell due to a concussion sustained in last week’s loss to NC State, and with backup Lindell Stone being limited to a one-dimensional passing game, Mendenhall and offensive coordinator Robert Anae came up with an alternate plan for the Deacons.

They decided on using Stone to throw the ball, but also inserted dual-threat quarterbacks Keytaon Thompson and Iraken Armstead to keep Wake’s defense off-balance and guessing with runs from regular and “wildcat” formations.

Putting all those parts together would have made Dr. Victor Frankenstein envious. Robert Anae’s monster was effective for one half of football and worked well, which makes it difficult to understand why he went away from it in the second half.

Lindell Stone

The three QBs combined to surprise Wake after the Deacons bolted to a 14-0 lead before Bronco could blink. Wake didn’t seem to have an answer for the three-pronged attack when Thompson and Armstead torpedoed the Deacs’ defense with runs, and Stone came in to go airborne when needed as Virginia battled back to a 20-20 halftime tie.

At that point, Thompson was averaging 8.0 yards per carry, Armstead 7.4 and tailback Wayne Taulapapa 8.8.

Thompson’s and Armstead’s combined touches in the second half (rush attempts) were reduced from 16 to 5, as Stone’s critical passes kept sailing out of bounds, as did Virginia’s hopes of winning the game.

By throwing the three QB pieces together, Anae was attempting to construct Bryce Perkins, but fell short. Stone could throw, but couldn’t run. Thompson could run, but couldn’t throw, and Armstead was, well, a freshman.

It seemed Wake couldn’t stop the running attack of Thompson and Armstead, and that made sense because the Deacs had been extremely vulnerable stopping the run game in previous ACC contests.

With that said, Virginia had an excellent chance to win the game after tying it at 23-23 with 13:28 to play after a 43-yard Brian Delaney field goal. 

Well, until the ensuing series when Wake tailback Kenneth Walker III made the first and second proud with a 75-yard touchdown run as UVA’s defense overplayed the run.

Within 96 seconds, the game was essentially over. Perris Jones, not the regular kick-return guy, fumbled the ensuing kickoff, Wake recovered at the UVA 27 and 36 seconds later, Walker was in the end zone again.

Wake 37, UVA 23. Game, set, match.

Yeah, the Cavaliers still had almost 12 minutes to do something, but squandered any opportunity by going three-and-out, followed by Stone’s second interception of the game, leading to Wake’s field goal for the last nail in the coffin.

“I thought (the three-QB idea) gave us the best chance to move the football and lead our team,” Mendenhall said afterward. “Each has a different skill set. We’re looking for complete play at quarterback after losing Brennan, so we tried to innovate and use them in a manner that would be helpful to us.

“I think, probably as you look at the statistics, you’ll probably see what happened … both Ira and KT were probably around seven yards per rush. Ira’s scrambling ability probably added something to that. I thought, collectively, our approach gave us a chance. We didn’t execute well enough to finish the game and to finish with the win, but I think it gave us a chance.”

Indeed.

Ira Armstead

It would have been interesting to see what might have happened if Virginia had gone solely with Thompson and Armstead in the second half, and allowed them to exploit the run-weak Deacs.

Playing without Armstrong was like asking the offense to play with one hand tied behind its back. At least that was expected. Even Mendenhall said after the game he didn’t know if Armstrong would be back next week or not.

The biggest mystery of this football team is the defense. Coming into the season, the Cavaliers had eight starters returning from a scary defense a year ago. It had 17 players that had started at least one game. It featured most of the players from the previous season that were responsible for a school-record number of quarterback sacks.

They call it Havoc.

That’s exactly what they played like in forcing seven turnovers in the win over Duke to start the season, and even gave No. 1 Clemson fits three weeks ago. The last two weeks? Not so much.

Two of UVA’s most experienced and respected safeties, Joey Blount and Brenton Nelson, were beaten by slot receivers for touchdowns on Wake’s first two possessions of the game.

While the Cavaliers overcame that deficit and held Wake down for a long stretch, the defense broke down at the most critical times down the homestretch.

“Our lack of execution,” Mendenhall pointed out. “One-on-one on defense, one in the special teams and then an interception was the difference I thought.”

Thompson, who last played quarterback at Mississippi State before transferring to UVA, said he felt like his and Armstead’s presence helped “jumpstart” the Cavaliers’ offense and helped the running game.

While it may have appeared complicated to juggle Stone’s arm and the other two QBs’ runs (sometimes two of them were in at the same time to further confuse Wake), Thompson said it was rather simple because it was just certain pages out of the playbook and somewhat scripted.

Good idea. Good execution. Just not enough of it in our opinion.

So where do the Cavaliers go from here to try to avoid complete disaster with Miami and UNC looming ahead?

“Mindset and work ethic and preparation is what we can control,” Mendenhall said. “Then eventually that will lead to execution at some point.”

At what point is to be determined.

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