Column: Stone performs admirably in backup role, but UVA QB situation cloudy after upset loss to Wolfpack

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Lindell Stone (36) releases a pass under pressure against NC State (Photo: Erin Edgerton/ACC Media Services).

Bronco Mendenhall didn’t see it coming. He was as blindsided as the rest of us by NC State coming into Scott Stadium and upsetting favored Virginia, 38-21, on Saturday, ending the Cavaliers’ 9-game home winning streak.

The visiting Wolfpack, perhaps the surprise team of the ACC at 3-1, didn’t use any smoke and mirrors to ruin UVA’s day. They relied on basic stuff, did what they’ve done all season long on both sides of the ball.

Virginia just didn’t have any answers, particularly after starting quarterback Brennan Armstrong left the game with less than six minutes remaining in the first half after having been targeted by State free safety Tanner Ingle, who was disqualified. Armstrong never returned to the game and his status is unknown for next Saturday’s game at Wake Forest.

Mendenhall’s team could be in a world of trouble if it loses Armstrong for a game or more, particularly with a challenging stretch looming ahead. After a road game at Wake, Virginia goes back on the road to No. 7 Miami, then returns home to face a high-scoring, eighth-ranked North Carolina team.

Armstrong took a helmet-to-helmet hit from the Wolfpack defender and was obviously shook up, and spent the rest of the half in UVA’s medical tent on the sideline, then didn’t return for the second half.

“I was just told that Brennan was out for the game,” Mendenhall said after watching his team fall to 1-2. “I can’t and don’t know any more information.”

While Armstrong had gotten off to his customary slow start as Virginia’s offense sputtered early yet again, he had finished strong in the Cavaliers’ first two games of the season.

UVA trailed 17-0 when Armstrong was knocked out of the game, and while fans were expecting Keytaon Thompson to answer in relief, instead it was senior Lindell Stone.

Stone, a sparingly used dropback passer, who doesn’t fit the ‘Thorterback’ dual-threat style of play that Mendenhall and his offensive staff prefers, played admirably. But there was too much to overcome.

Coming into Saturday, Stone had only appeared in four games at quarterback for the Cavaliers, had completed a mere 4 of 12 passes, including three interceptions and had a career QB efficiency rating of 5.03.

For the day, Stone got Virginia back into the game and remained within striking distance for a while. He completed 30 of 54 pass attempts for 240 yards and three touchdowns, all obviously career highs.

Combined with Armstrong and a pass by punter Nash Griffin on a fake kick (a 26-yard pass to Nick Jackson that extended the drive for an eventual TD pass to tight end Tony Pojan), the Cavaliers put up 64 passes on the day for 323 yards.

It was the second-most pass attempts in Virginia history. But passing numbers are usually losing numbers, and this time it was no different. Stuck way behind when he reported into the game, Stone inherited a near-impossible situation. By then, offensive coordinator Robert Anae had thrown the run game out the window. It would be nothing but pass, pass, pass the rest of the afternoon.

Stone connected with Billy Kemp IV (2 yards), Poljan (1 yard) and later to Lavel Davis Jr. (5 yards) for scores, but UVA had dug itself too deep a hole to come out of, especially with turnovers (four of ‘em). The last one did the most damage.

After the Cavaliers had gained some momentum with the fake punt and subsequent TD to Poljan late in the third quarter, cutting it to 24-14, State pretty much stole that momentum and iced the game when big ol’ nose tackle Alim McNeill, all 320 pounds of him, tipped a Stone pass, hauled it in and rumbled 18 yards for a defensive lineman’s dream of a touchdown.

Up until then, there was a lot of belief on the Virginia sideline that it still had a chance.

After the perfectly executed fake-punt pass to the State 29, it wasn’t over.

“I think everyone knew that and the score was cut to a manageable number and I really believed we thought at that point we’re going to win the game,” Mendenhall said.

Stone agreed.

“I think the fake punt was really kind of that spark,” Stone said. “I think we all felt like we were going to win the game and we were going to get back into it. But then [State] obviously tips for the interception return for the touchdown, and put us into a more desperate situation.”

The Wolfpack unveiled its “Turnover Bone,” in the game, and got some good use out of it.

“We got four takeaways and four signatures on [the bone] today,” said State coach Dave Doeren. “That’s how you win on the road.”

Now, with Armstrong’s status up in the air, what is Mendenhall to do?

“We’ll evaluate once we know about Brennan and then we’ll reevaluate where we are at quarterback,” Mendenhall said. “I was really happy with Lindell and [teammates] loved his leadership and his effectiveness. But when I have the information, then we’ll consider what our best option is.”

Thompson, who is a dual-threat quarterback, transferred from Mississippi State and according to Anae, pushed Armstrong hard for the starting job in training camp. But the former Bulldog was too talented to be left standing on the sideline, so UVA’s offensive staff moved him to wide receiver before the season.

In the first two games, Thompson attempted a deep throw to Armstrong on a trick play that was incomplete against Duke, then caught a touchdown pass last week at Clemson.

Little did we know that he had apparently abandoned his backup quarterback duties, now left to Stone and true freshman Ira Armstead.

If Armstrong can’t answer the bell this week, will Thompson be an option at Wake?

“Since we moved him to wide receiver, we really hadn’t gone back to revisit that because of how Brennan was doing,” Mendenhall said. “We really haven’t been revisiting that closely enough.”

Could that be a critical error on the offensive staff’s count, not to have their best options available at quarterback, when Mendenhall himself said in August that he believed it required two quarterbacks to win the ACC title? Thompson had a decent career at Mississippi State and perhaps could be the answer if Armstrong remains sidelined.

Stone said he talked to Armstrong after the game, but didn’t divulge any details of the starter’s physical condition.

“I just asked him how he was and how he felt,” Stone said. “I feel really bad for him. He’s like a little brother to me. He’s trying really hard and he’s played really well. Hopefully we’ll have a way to get him back for next week because he’s earned the starting job. I hope he gets better as soon as possible.”

So does Mendenhall, or else what appeared last week to be the potential for a promising season, could turn into their worst nightmare.

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