UVA takes one of nation’s worst offenses to Atlanta; can Kitchings get it fixed?

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Virginia quarterback Brennan Armstrong. (Photo: UVA Athletics)

Virginia has its own supply-chain problem as it heads to Atlanta for a Thursday night game at Georgia Tech (7:30, ESPN). The products (quarterback Brennan Armstrong and a corps of experienced receivers) are available, but the offense isn’t able to deliver in the red zone.

This lack of production has been the major reason the Cavaliers have started so slow. Off to a 2-4 start (0-3 in ACC play), Virginia ranks next-to-last in the ACC and No. 122 in FBS football when it comes to scoring.

Des Kitchings’ offense is averaging a mere 17.8 points per game, lowest by a Virginia team since 2008, when those Cavaliers put up only 16.1 points per game. Only Georgia Tech stands between UVA’s scoring average and the bottom of the ACC, although the Yellow Jackets’ offense has experienced a resurgence under interim head coach Brent Key. Kitchings’ offense is only nine spots from the very bottom of the nation’s 131 FBS teams in scoring per game.

UVA’s offensive coordinator was asked Tuesday if he thought the Cavaliers can turn their poor offensive performance around in the second half of the season.

“Yes, oh, it’s very possible to turn it around, and we are going to turn it around,” Kitchings said. “Yes, we’re frustrated because we let [the Louisville] game get away. We were in control of it there in the first quarter and had a bad second quarter, and didn’t recover.”

Virginia was up 10-0 after the first quarter, but then punted on its next three possessions, was intercepted on its fourth, and trailed 13-10 at the half. Even though the Cavaliers received the ball to start the second half, they had to punt again and quickly found themselves behind, 20-10, en route to a 34-17 loss, their third in a row (all to ACC opponents).

“I like the way we’ve attacked the bye week and looking forward to Thursday night,” Kitchings said.

Scoring isn’t the only downfall of Kitchings’ offense. The Cavaliers are 12th (out of 14 teams) in the ACC in red-zone offense; 13th in time of possession (meaning poor third-down conversion rate); 11th in third-down conversions; 13th in sacks surrendered; 11th in passing yardage; 12th in rushing; and 10th in total offense (356.8, as compared to 515.8 per game in 2021). While penalties are caused on both sides of the ball, UVA is dead last in the ACC in penalty yardage per game (71.3).

Kitchings said Virginia has to eliminate turnovers and hits on the quarterback (20 in six games), which he said that’s way too many.

“And then we’ve got to catch the ball,” the OC said. “We do those three things, and then we’re going to have a really consistent, productive offense.”

Tony Elliott said Monday that the sacks given up by an inexperienced offensive line is a product of poor fundamentals, and so have been UVA’s fumbles. Receivers have dropped the ball at an astonishing rate, something Elliott said can be corrected.

“Guys are not finishing plays,” the head coach said. “You catch the ball with your eyes.”

While Armstrong fell short of his own expectations in the first half of the season, Elliott said there’s only so much one player can do.

“I think what you got right now is when adversity hits, everybody looks to 5 (Armstrong), but trying to get the team to understand we’re not asking 5 to make every play,” Elliott said. “We’re trying to play as a team. We’re trying to ask him to make the play required, and also ask you to make the play required.”

Armstrong has been slow to adjust to Elliott’s and Kitchings’ new passing scheme, although he graded out at slightly above 76 percent against Louisville, his highest of the season.

“Brennan has continued to have really good practices,” Kitchings said. “The way he is throwing the ball, and the guys are catching the ball (in practice), so now we’ve just got to put it together on Thursday night.”

It’s a challenging assignment going into a place where Virginia has only won twice since the turn of the century. If Kitchings can’t get this fixed in a hurry, the Cavaliers’ immediate future appears bleak.