To hoist a football program out of a period of prolonged futility, you need to make a good head coaching hire, sure, but you’ll need a little luck as well. For instance, it helps quite a bit if you can find a good quarterback early in the rebuild to help put you ahead of schedule, build confidence in the process, and use that to gain momentum in recruiting.
Virginia managed both after years of failing on both counts. The Cavaliers brought in Bronco Mendenhall, whose proven track record at BYU has not surprisingly translated to a school in a better league in better recruiting territory. The Cavs also found a franchise quarterback in Bryce Perkins, whose talents led the team to 17 wins over two seasons, culminating in an ACC title game appearance last season.
The challenge UVA faces now, and it’s one we’re all familiar with, is how to maintain its forward progress while replacing that kind of impact player under center. Virginia has been to three consecutive bowl games and has upgraded its roster across the board, but as State fans know well, that collective momentum can ground to a speedy halt with a whiff at quarterback.
It’s still too early to really tell, in UVA’s case. Brennan Armstrong is the new guy at QB and he’s hardly been sterling through two games: 54.5% completions, 6.1 yards per attempt, five touchdowns to four picks. But his introduction has also been far more difficult than it would be in a typical year, when the schedule would allow a bit of ramping up to the meat of the schedule.
These circumstances do nobody any favors, and given that Armstrong has faced a solid Duke defense followed by Clemson, you could argue he’s actually been fine.
But there’s no question that Virginia’s passing game doesn’t have the same edge it did last year, and this is not just because of the change at quarterback. UVA also lost three of its top four receivers to graduation, including Hasise Dubois, who hit the 1,000-yard mark in 2019. That was bound to hurt.
The good news for UVA is that its ground game has had more bite in 2020: so far the Cavs are averaging 46 more yards per game this year, and they’ve gone from 3.8 per attempt in 2019 to 4.5 early in this season. That’s providing some much-needed support for Armstrong.
Still, the Cavaliers have been throwing the ball a lot, because they have been behind a lot. They never led against Clemson, and they fell behind Duke 10-0 and after reclaiming the lead before halftime, went into the fourth quarter down 20-17. Armstrong has already attempted 88 passes, which is probably not what UVA would prefer.
No doubt some of that pressure has led to Armstrong’s poor efficiency, and at least some of those turnovers. And so that’s NC State’s task this weekend—keep that pressure on his decision making to determine the game. That may not end up working out for the Wolfpack given the status of its secondary, but it’s the most likely path to victory.