Does Virginia’s success ride on its offensive line?

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Jonathan Leech (Photo: UVA Athletics)

Virginia football fans have been here before, when a lack of experienced offensive linemen has caused havoc with game plans.

It was no wonder that former offensive coordinator Robert Anae enhanced his “Air Raid” philosophy by filling the skies over Scott Stadium with leather rainbows. In most recent years, Anae didn’t have a reliable offensive line, which led to an unreliable running game, thus a pass-happy UVA offense.

Even last season with his most experienced line, it was pass-heavy because that’s what Virginia’s players did best, throw and catch.

After last week’s less-than-impressive offensive output at Illinois, Wahoo fans don’t know what to expect when Sun Belt rep Old Dominion comes to town, hoping to take its second pelt from a state Power Five program this month.

Will new coach Tony Elliott and new offensive coordinator Des Kitchings stick with their attempt to establish more balance in offensive production, or will they be forced to air things out because of the O-Line? Five UVA linemen made their debuts two weeks ago against Richmond as Dartmouth transfer John Paul Flores was the only Cavalier who had previously started a game.

Jonathan Leech was the lone lineman who had even earned a letter, meaning UVA was tied with Colorado State with the fewest returning lettermen in the country on respective O-lines.

The Cavaliers were putrid on offense in a 24-3 loss at Illinois last Saturday when quarterback Brennan Armstrong was running for his life because of an Illini pass rush that UVA’s offensive linemen simply couldn’t handle. In fact, when one reviews the PFF (Pro Football Focus) grades for each Virginia player from that loss, only one offensive lineman managed to grade out as “average.” That was backup center Jestus Johnson, who played only 10 snaps in the game.

What is Virginia to do against the Monarchs today (2 p.m., ACC Network)?

“We’re going to work on those things to help [the O-line] out,” Elliott said this week. “But if you look at it, a lot of it is with what [Illinois] did … they put a five-man line front and you go five-man front, it’s one-on-one blocks. So now it comes down to execution of your fundamentals.”

What it came down to was Illinois dominating the trenches on that side of the football, controlling the line of scrimmage by winning those one-on-one battles. Illinois was bigger, more physical than UVA’s opening opponent (Richmond) and certainly bigger than ODU, but that doesn’t guarantee the Cavaliers’ offensive line stopping the Monarchs’ pass rush today.

Elliott pointed out this week that he fully expects ODU to take some ideas from what Illinois had success with last week and attempt to exploit what was UVA’s weakness.

“There’s no doubt that they’re probably going to bring some five-man fronts,” Elliott said. “They’re primarily a four-down, but they will walk their weak side [linebacker] around to try and create some confusion, to create a five-man front to see if we fixed the technical issues that we had from a one-on-one standpoint.”

The question lingering in UVA’s fanbase is can the coaching staff fix the problem in one week?

Certainly, Elliott was correct in his guess that ODU took notice of last week’ woes.

During his press conference this week, Monarchs coach Ricky Rahne made reference to Virginia’s shortcomings.

“[Illinois] played really well up front … they were able to coral [Virginia’s] running game and get home in the passing game and put pressure on their quarterback,” Rahne pointed out. “When you’re under duress a lot, it makes it harder to complete passes.

“Not to speak for their offensive line, but they went from being a very experienced offensive line to inexperienced. They’re going to get better every game they play.”

Armstrong experienced one of his worst days as a passer as a result, and Virginia failed to score a touchdown for the first time since losing at home to Notre Dame last November.

The Cavaliers are 21-5 at Scott Stadium since the 2018 season.

UVA is a 9-point favorite in the matchup.

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