Elliott made smart, effective changes that helped Virginia’s offense get back on track

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Lavel Davis Jr.’s catch late in the fourth quarter helped get the Cavaliers in field-goal range. (Photo by Michael Bruder)

After not scoring a touchdown in a loss at Illinois a week ago, Tony Elliott quickly recognized something had to change.

Brennan Armstrong had perhaps his worst week as a Virginia quarterback. He failed to throw a touchdown pass, being chased from the pocket and harassed by Illinois’ pass rush all game long. The offensive line was struggling.

Being a longtime assistant at Clemson, Elliott knew how to fix things. He huddled with his offensive staff and they began to tinker with their system in preparation for Saturday’s home game against a dangerous Old Dominion team, which had upset Virginia Tech two weeks earlier.

What UVA fans saw Saturday was the result of the tinkering. Elliott came up with these points of emphasis:

  • Simplify the structure
  • More fundamentals for the run game with backs and the line
  • More max-protection for Armstrong, which meant sending out only three receivers at times rather than four or five
  • Move the pocket
  • Use more play-action to freeze ODU’s linebackers or safeties long enough to allow the receivers to get open
  • Allow Brennan to be Brennan

All this allowed UVA to survive a 16-14 scare against the Sun Belt opponent and put up more than 500 yards of offense and drive 56 yards with only 55 seconds on the clock to set up Brendan Farrell’s walk-off winning field goal.

“This week it was, we need confidence bad because we have a talented group that’s not hitting on all cylinders,” Elliott said after the win. “What we needed to do is simplify as much as we could, let the guys get lined up, let them play and build some confidence.”

Elliott believed the Cavaliers could run the ball on ODU and his suspicions were correct, as they called more running plays (45) than passes (37) and piled up 229 net yards on the ground against the Monarchs.

There were changes on the offensive line, as Jonathan Leech returned from an arm injury to start at right tackle. Meanwhile, previous starting right tackle Logan Taylor started at left tackle instead of true freshman McKale Boley. The two starting guards remained the same, Dartmouth transfer John Paul Flores (at left) and Derek Devine (at right).

The offensive staff believed ODU would give the offense opportunities to throw downfield, but at the same time were going to present a challenge with the pass rush, so at times UVA’s offense sent out only three receivers and kept six or seven players in to protect Armstrong, who was sacked only twice (once on a blitz from his blindside).

Kitchings used more play-action, which allowed Armstrong to fake handoffs to some of his effective running backs, especially freshman Xavier Brown (88 yards, 9.8 average pickup, see related story), and move the pocket with sprint-out passes, which kept the defense guessing and on its heels.

Keytaon Thompson hangs on for a reception against ODU’s Shawn Asbury. (Photo by Michael Bruder)

“The play-action was good,” said Armstrong, who was 20 of 37 for 284 yards (no interceptions, no TDs). “We were able to protect a little more. There’s only three guys out there on routes, but if it keeps me off the ground and keeps me steady, that’s sometimes what we’ll have to do.”

The quarterback felt his offensive line was good throughout the day, pushing the line of scrimmage for the ground game.

Virginia did manage to take a few shots downfield, including a huge, 30-yard gain on a pass over the middle to Lavel Davis Jr. (two catches, 47 yards, 24 yards after catch), that kept the winning drive alive. The pass moved UVA from its own 37 to the ODU 33 with 44 seconds to play.

“That was kind of a quarters look, and I was like, if they don’t shift at all after this post-snap, when I get through all my reads quickly and just give [Davis] a shot in the middle of the field,” Armstrong said. “They stayed in it and I just found him in the middle.”

Kitchings saw it coming, too. 

“We knew they would be in coverage for our two-minute drill,” Kitchings said. “We went formation into the boundary and [Davis] got into the hole in Cover-2, and that was a pretty throw by Brennan. He stepped into the pocket and zinged that thing in there, and I said, ‘Alright, here we go. We’re about to go win this thing.’”

Kitchings was right. Armstrong rushed for 13 yards on the next play to the ODU 20, then drew a pass-interference call on Monarchs cornerback Tobias Harris, who couldn’t contain Dontayvion Wicks in the end zone. That gave UVA a first down at the 5 with 16 seconds to play.

Armstrong went right back on the same play to Wicks in the left corner of the end zone and this time Harris defended to leave 12 seconds on the clock as UVA lined up for the winning field goal (see related story on Farrell’s kick).

Whether Elliott will stick with this philosophy headed into Syracuse for Friday night’s game (7 p.m., ESPN) isn’t known, but he may have to do so to keep Armstrong protected and to give receivers more time to run their routes properly.

Speaking of receivers, UVA was minus Billy Kemp IV for the ODU game after he came down with an illness Friday night and was unable to play.

COMING MONDAY: “Let Brennan be Brennan”