Virginia’s defense should be praised, but when is the offense going to show up?

By Jerry Ratcliffe

uva football

Photo: UVA Athletics

Who would have ever expected Virginia’s defense would be the strength of this football team after the first month of play this season? OK, John Rudzinski, your vote doesn’t count.

Rudzinski, the no-nonsense defensive coordinator, who was the mastermind of building some of America’s best defenses at Air Force, has miraculously turned UVA’s group around. Last year, the Cavaliers fielded one of the worst defenses in the country. This season, the defense has given Virginia a chance to win every game, including Friday night’s trip to the “Loud House,” at Syracuse.

As bad as Virginia played in the first half, it was still in the game thanks to Rudzinski’s guys. Meanwhile, the offense was stinking up the Dome until it finally got its act together, outscored the Orange 20-6 in the second half before losing 22-20 and dropping to 2-2 on the season, 0-1 in the ACC.

It was UVA’s offense that was supposed to be loaded with one of the nation’s top passers returning and a fleet of elite receivers. Yes, it is a brand new, inexperienced offensive line, but it was the same line in the second half Friday as the first half.

What it came down to was a facemask penalty on linebacker Hunter Stewart, who was in for disqualified Nick Jackson (targeting) that cost Virginia the game. Not picking on Stewart, because it could have been any of his teammates, but Virginia essentially had the game won, leading 20-19 when Syracuse was facing a third-and-seven at the UVA 41, and the Cavaliers pass rush smothered Orange quarterback Garrett Shrader of a six-yard loss.

That meant Syracuse would have to convert a fourth-and-13 to have a chance to win. Stewart was called for an untimely facemask that awarded the Orange a first down and Syracuse capitalized, driving for what turned out to be the winning field goal with 1:14 to play.

Virginia had chances on its last gasp effort, but the passing game just didn’t click yet again. In the five-play drive, quarterback Brennan Armstrong chose to throw deep twice and scrambled twice. When it became fourth-and-4 at UVA’s 47 with less than 30 seconds to go, Armstrong didn’t see wide open receivers open on routes that would have produced a first down and instead chose to throw deep to Ethan Davies.

Of course, a desperation drive wouldn’t have even been necessary had it not been for the facemasking penalty.

Still, most fans are encouraged by the defensive turnaround and and befuddled by the offense’s lack of success. Virginia posted only 257 yards of total offense and Armstrong, who appears to be pressing (how else can you explain his lack of production), was a mere 19 of 38 passing for 138 yards. His longest pass was 13 yards.

In most games last season, Armstrong had more than 138 in a half, if not a quarter. His completion rate was much higher and he was bombing secondaries into oblivion.

Yeah, yeah, we know the O-Line is leaking. Still, Armstrong is clearly off his game. Some believe he’s playing hurt. We don’t know. Nothing has been divulged except that he’s taken a few hard hits this season. But something is out of whack, whether he’s having difficulty adjusting to a more structured offense that is based on progression reads and a shorter yardage passing game, appears to be a factor.

“The truth is we can’t continue to lose to ourselves,” Tony Elliott said after suffering his second lost to a Power 5 opponent. “We got 12 penalties; we got some critical mistakesw gy some of our older guys.

“Offensively, we were in another situation, little adversity early in the game and guys started to abandon their technique and go away from the things that we’ve been teaching them to do. Defense gave us some short fields and we couldn’t capitalize.”

Rudzinski can pat himself on the back right now. His defense forced four Syracuse turnovers, the first time the Orange had experienced any turnovers all season. It should be noted that coming into Saturday, Power 5 teams are 15-2 this season after gaining at least four turnovers. The 2? Virginia in losses to Syracuse and Illinois.

The Cavaliers’ defense, which couldn’t stop anybody a year ago, sacked Syracuse quarterback Garrett Shrader six times, intercepted him once. It held heralded Orange running back Sean Tucker to a 2.9 average per rush (21 attempts, 60 yards) with his longest gain being only 9 yards.

UVA, which has already recovered more fumbles in four games than it did the entire 2021 season. Its six sacks of Shrader was the most by a Virginia defense since the memorable win over rival Virginia Tech in 2019. The defense held Syracuse to four field goals in five trips inside the red zone (one TD, coming on the opening drive of the game).

Bottom line is that Rudzinski’s defense had held all of UVA’s opponents to less than 25 points – normally enough to allow the Cavaliers to win any game. Last year’s defense only accomplished that feat three times in 12 contests.

Once again, the O-Line struggled to protect Armstrong, who was sacked four times, even though the Big Uglies did some good things with its run blocking, allowing Perris Jones to pick up 87 yards and a TD (6.7 average per attempt).

Elliott said he had explained to the linemen that thete was going to be a lot of junk going on with Syracuse’s defensive front, that on a hypothetical 10-play drive, they could see 10 different looks from the Orange.

“One of the big points was, don’t abandon the plan, don’t abandon your technique, and we had that issue,” the coach said.

Still, Virginia didn’t quit. It was projected that if the Cavaliers got off to a slow start, it could get ugly. Luckily, the defense prevented a rout until UVA’s offense could get its act together.

So what changed at halftime?

“I think a good adjustment offensively,” Elliott went on to explain. “We’re trying to be a wide zone team, to get the ball outside, and there was too much trash in there and too many [Syracuse] guys that were moving around. Credit to them. They had a good plan, put some lighter guys inside that could move, creating some matchup advantages for them, and so what we did, is we found the inside running game.

“Perris was feeling it. He found a couple of things. Brennan pulled a couple, then we had some of the RPO [run-pass option] stuff on the perimeter and it allowed us to stay ahead of the chains.”

While the O-Line has been erratic at best, some of the blame has to fall on Armstrong’s ample shoulder pads. As much as we praised him for outstanding play a year ago, again, something is off. He’s not himself. Whether that’s internal pressure or struggling to handle the new offensive philosophy, or both, it’s just not working.

“Perfect example is fourth down, game on the line, Brennan sets his feet, pressure off the edge, delivers a strike,” Elliott pointed out.

He was referring to Armstrong’s 4-yard touchdown pass to Lavel Davis on fourth-and-goal that put Virginia ahead, 20-19 with 5:51 to play.

“Then there’s other times we’ve drifted in the pocket, we’re moving right, we’re not settling out feet, we’re seeing too much of the pressure, we’re delivering the ball out of bounds,” Ellliott said. “He’s played enough football that he knows. The first thing he did when we came to the sideline, was said, ‘I should have just threw it away [after the interception].’

“The tight end got hung up, it was a tight end delay out the back door, throw it out of bounds and move on to the next play. We’re trying to do too much on offense and we just need to kind of settle in and just play good, clean offensive football and execute, stay ahead of the chains and positive things will happen … and that’s what you saw more of in the second half.”

Problem is, UVA’s opponents, especially the Power 5 ones, aren’t going to wait for Virginia to finally show up in the second half. Slow starts at Illinois and Syracuse doomed the Cavaliers. In those two games, UVA’s offense is 4 of 28 on third downs, meaning it’s not getting enough done on first and second downs, leaving Armstrong with too many third-and-longs. Advantage defense.

Rudzinski’s boys are playing some hair-chested defense under challenging conditions.

When is the offense going to show up?lol