MESSIER: Virginia offense’s disappearing act
In Virginia’s two wins against Central Michigan and Duke, the offense managed to post 421 and 336 passing yards, respectively, behind junior quarterback Kurt Benkert.
Since then, there has been a noticeable decline in the Cavaliers’ previously successful air raid offense. Two weeks ago against Pittsburgh, the team recorded 278 passing yards and lost 45-31. Against No. 22 North Carolina Saturday, the team recorded just 143 passing yards en route to a 35-14 loss.
It’s evident that the Cavaliers can be successful behind a big passing game from Benkert. However, he averaged just 3.9 yards per passing attempt against the Tar Heels and the Cavaliers recorded just 14 points. Without his offensive spark, the rest of the team’s offense is virtually nonexistent.
In total, Virginia’s offense collected only 253 yards against the North Carolina defense. The Cavaliers’ lackluster offense was particularly troublesome on third down plays. On the day, they converted just three of 19 third downs.
Coach Bronco Mendenhall recognized that without converting on third downs, the offense didn’t have much of a chance of success in the first place.
“Third down was one of the telling stories of the game today,” Mendenhall said. “Our inability to convert on third down with the number of attempts we had just didn’t allow our point production and our time of possession.”
The Cavaliers’ offensive regression was most evident in their inability to answer Tar Heel touchdowns. In the offensive drives immediately after North Carolina’s five touchdowns, Virginia missed a field goal, punted three times and fumbled the football.
But where did Virginia’s offense go? Against the Chippewas and the Blue Devils, Benkert and company executed dazzling long receptions, ran an intimidating running game and earned wins in the process.
It seems that it began to decline last week against the Panthers. In the first half against Pittsburgh, Benkert was 13 of 23 and recorded 185 yards before throwing a pick six right before halftime. The Cavaliers had recorded 28 points before the intermission, but only managed to put three more points on the board in the fourth quarter with a field goal from junior placekicker Sam Hayward.
To sum it all up — after recording 14 points against North Carolina, Virginia has scored just 17 points in six quarters since the first half-ending pick-six against Pittsburgh.
However, all 14 of the Cavaliers’ points Saturday came under other quarterbacks — seniors Matt Johns and Connor Brewer. Johns earned Virginia’s first score of the afternoon when he was involved in a fake field goal play, firing an 11-yard pass into the end zone to junior tight end Evan Butts. Brewer entered the game after Benkert was pulled in the fourth quarter, and led a drive that yielded a one-yard touchdown run from senior tailback Taquan Mizzell.
Benkert’s early exit was the first time the East Carolina transfer has been pulled from a game this season. Perhaps this break was needed, especially after Benkert’s Pittsburgh interception.
“I felt it was necessary with the pressure that was going on Benkert, starting from the second half of the Pitt game through this game,” Mendenhall said, “It was wise just to have him step back and have him see it from a different perspective and take a breath and regroup.”
However, the blame for Virginia’s offensive slump cannot rest solely on Benkert’s shoulders. In the same six quarters that the Cavaliers have only scored 17 points, Benkert has been sacked five times. The running game failed to reach its potential against a North Carolina team that ranked last in the ACC in rushing defense before Saturday’s game. Virginia averaged just 2.8 yards per carry against the Tar Heels.
There was a bright spot in the offense Saturday in Mizzell. Although the ground game generally faltered, the senior managed to tally 19 carries and 106 yards, including a touchdown. The Virginia Beach native also recorded seven receptions to extend his reception streak to 40 games — tied for fourth in the nation. Mizzell clearly led the team in the running game, as the Cavaliers only collected 110 rushing yards in total.
The offensive decline is evident in both the running and the passing game for Virginia, and the Cavaliers need to ensure that their declining production doesn’t continue next week against No. 5 Louisville. Offensive coordinator Robert Anae is going to have to revamp his offense if they hope to be competitive in their last five ACC games.