So Saturday’s homecoming showdown against Louisville features somewhat of a playoff atmosphere considering not only are the Cavaliers (2-3, 0-2 ACC) seeking to end their slide but also the reality that victories down the stretch figure to be far more demanding than facing a wounded adversary who’s winless in the ACC this year.
The Cardinals (2-3, 0-3) enter with uncertainty surrounding the status of starting quarterback Malik Cunningham, who is being monitored this week for concussion-like symptoms, according to Coach Scott Satterfield. Cunningham was injured in last weekend’s 34-33 loss to Boston College, giving way to backup Brock Domann, and is listed as day-to-day.
“I really think this is a big game for us, just to get our momentum going into the bye week,” said Cavaliers graduate cornerback Anthony Johnson, who transferred to Virginia after beginning his career with Louisville. “That’d be really big, and then we’re in Scott Stadium. We’ve got to make sure we defend our home.”
The Cavaliers are hosting a Power Five school for the first time this season on the heels of a 38-17 defeat last weekend against Duke in a game they fell behind by 21-0 early in the second quarter in Durham, N.C., and never recovered.
A similar blueprint plagued Virginia one game prior when it trailed Syracuse at halftime, 16-0, at the JMA Wireless Dome before rallying to take a 20-19 lead late in the fourth quarter. The Cavaliers failed to complete the comeback when a costly penalty contributed to Syracuse kicking a field goal with 1:14 to play for a 22-20 triumph.
Self-inflicted errors proved costly in both games. Virginia committed 12 penalties for 105 yards against the Orange and six for 87 yards against the Blue Devils, who limited the Cavaliers to 295 yards of total offense, including just 93 rushing.
“We’ll get a good indicator of where we are, kind of going into the bye week and get some identity for ourselves,” said Virginia tight end Grant Misch, a native of Sterling who played high school football at Potomac Falls. “It’s a good middle point, a good ACC stretch coming up, a good way to find ourselves.”
Exactly who this iteration of Virginia is remains unclear, at least offensively given the statistical regression of quarterback Brennan Armstrong. The dual-threat southpaw elected to come back for a fifth year to fortify his NFL draft stock, but Armstrong’s production has tailed off dramatically from the record-setting numbers he posted over the previous two seasons.
The Cavaliers’ career and single-season leader in total offense ranks 10th out of 14 quarterbacks in the conference this year in passing yards per game (210.0). Last season Armstrong led the ACC in that category (404.5), finishing as the only quarterback to average more than 400 passing yards per game.
Perhaps most alarming is Armstrong’s dip in completion percentage, which this season stands at 52.0. He ended 2021 with a completion percentage of 65.2, good for fourth in the ACC.
Also troubling have been Armstrong’s five interceptions, representing half of his total for all of last season.
“I think everyone just doing the little things on their job, whether it’s not running the route precisely enough or dropping the ball or the timing with the quarterback,” Misch said when asked for an explanation of Armstrong’s statistical decline. “That’s what we’re trying to work more on every day is precision and just getting that timing and chemistry with BA.”
A leaky and inexperienced offensive line, meanwhile, has compelled Armstrong to get the ball out sooner than what he had been accustomed to in previous years while he continues to develop a command of the principles Elliott and first-year offensive coordinator Des Kitchings have installed.
In addition the rushing attack has provided only modest support. The Cavaliers are ninth in the conference at 154.4 yards per game and average 94.7 against Power Five opponents this season.
“I’m not looking at the schedule,” Elliott said. “Right now I’m trying to figure out schematically what we need to do as a staff to be successful against Louisville. What do I do in conjunction with the staff to help find the right motivation for these guys to be detail oriented, focus on the little things, not listen to the voices on the outside.
“Focus on what they can control. They can control their attitude they come to work [with] every day, the quality of the work they put in, then how prepared they show up on Saturday to play.”