The Washington Post Sunday

Cavaliers get creative on o≠ense in blowout



charlottes­ville — Even in an era of innovative offenses from coast to coast, the Virginia football team managed to present some unusual looks as it baffled Illinois in a 42-14 win Saturday at Scott Stadium. Three players took snaps, and three attempted passes (though not the same three) before the game was out of hand late. The starting quarterbac­k, Brennan Armstrong, moved the ball in every way possible — he threw it, he ran it, and he caught a pass.

The end result was 556 total yards, the Cavaliers’ most against a major-conference opponent since 2010, with an offense Coach Bronco Mendenhall has developed over the years but rarely has had the personnel to match. When he spoke about this offense after the game Saturday, he used the word “diversity” twice — and, yes, the name Taysom Hill, who played for Mendenhall at BYU, came up.

“With Taysom, he was a great runner, probably the best athlete on our team running the ball, and he was the best thrower,” Mendenhall said of Hill, who’s now a versatile weapon for the New Orleans Saints. “He was probably the best receiver, or tight end, or running back. And so [we had] this thought of: ‘What if there was someone else that could throw it to him? Why does he have to play quarterbac­k every play? Or if we have someone else who’s anywhere similar, why do they have to just watch until we need another quarterbac­k?’ ”

Those questions were the genesis of an offense that unleashed double reverses, wide receiver passes and other misdirecti­on. The final product Saturday was a positionle­ss style of football that featured five rushes of 10 or more yards by five players and 16 receptions of 10 or more yards by six players, including Armstrong.

“I just feel like we have a lot of playmakers, and it just kind of morphed into this,” Armstrong said. “They have a lot of trust with our O-line, with me, with the receivers and the chemistry there. That’s what we want to do.”

For all of their gadgets, the Cavaliers’ season rests on Armstrong’s arm, and no trick play was as effective as his surgical downfield passing game. He threw for 405 yards, the fourthmost in program history, and five touchdowns. His only blemish was a deep pass that looked like a 30-yard catch for Keytaon Thompson until Illinois’ Kerby Joseph wrested it from his grasp.

The mood in the stadium depended on Armstrong: The crowd roared when his offense began the day with two touchdown drives piling up 155 yards in just eight plays, gasped when the quarterbac­k stayed down after a hit in the third quarter and exhaled when he threw his fourth touchdown pass four plays later.

Virginia’s 5-5 record in 2020 was obscured by the fact that the Cavaliers went 5-3 when Armstrong started and finished the game and 0-2 in the games he missed with a concussion. Because progress is rarely linear, that meant Virginia regressed from its consistent ascent in the first four years of Mendenhall’s tenure.

But with a strong quarterbac­k and aggressive defense, the Cavaliers are in Year 6 of a project Illinois is just beginning. Virginia went 27-46 in the six seasons before Mendenhall’s arrival; Illinois was 22-47 in the six years before hiring Coach Bret Bielema in December.

From the outset, the Cavaliers looked like the more polished team. On the first play from scrimmage, Jelani Woods was wide open for 31 yards over the middle, and on the fourth, Woods carried his defender into the end zone for a 32-yard touchdown. Virginia then sent Illinois’ offense back to the sideline after three plays and scored in four snaps again.

Woods caught five passes for 122 yards and a touchdown. Dontayvion Wicks caught two touchdowns and threw an 18-yard pass to Armstrong, while Thompson totaled 92 yards and a touchdown on nine touches.

“That’s just the way [offensive coordinato­r Robert] Anae is,” Woods said of Virginia’s offensive creativity. “When I first came, he showed me the offense, and I knew the diversity of how it is. It really doesn’t surprise me. I’m happy it’s that way.”

Virginia’s defense completed the team’s performanc­e, led by Noah Taylor’s two sacks. Just before halftime, Illinois’ offense took the field looking to make a dent in the Cavaliers’ 21-7 lead. The Illini gained 18 yards on three plays and called timeout. Hunter Stewart delivered a sack on the next play, and Taylor drilled quarterbac­k Artur Sitkowski on the subsequent snap. After thinking for a moment, Illinois let the clock run out and sent a confident Virginia team on a march to the locker room.

 ?? RYAN M. KELLY/GETTY IMAGES ?? Virginia quarterbac­k Brennan Armstrong threw for 405 yards, ran for 31 and had an 18-yard catch.
RYAN M. KELLY/GETTY IMAGES Virginia quarterbac­k Brennan Armstrong threw for 405 yards, ran for 31 and had an 18-yard catch.

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