Virginia football traveled to Clemson for its first road game of the season, falling 41-23. The Cavaliers (1-1, 1-1 ACC), showed flashes of promise throughout the game, but the consistency and talent on the Tigers (3-0, 2-0 ACC) proved to be too much.
Prior to the game, Virginia announced that seven non-starting players would be unavailable for competition because of issues related to COVID-19. This is the first game where the Cavaliers had players out because of the coronavirus. These individuals were currently in either isolation or quarantine. Additionally, one full-time coach tested positive for COVID-19 and has been put in isolation.
“It was a challenge the entire game, defensively,” Coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “Either through tackling or Clemson’s receivers making plays or Trevor Lawrence scrambling … they have really good players.”
Clemson opened the game with a 52-yard kickoff return from junior running back Lyn-J Dixon, which set up the Tigers with excellent starting field position. The Virginia defense stepped up to the challenge, eventually forcing a 47-yard field goal attempt. Junior kicker B.T. Potter nailed the kick to open the scoring 3-0.
The Cavalier offense struggled to find its rhythm early on as sophomore quarterback Brennan Armstrong failed to complete all six of his passes on the opening drive. Virginia converted a couple of crucial third downs with Armstrong’s legs, driving into Clemson territory, but the Tiger defense held its own, forcing a punt.
After Clemson and Virginia exchanged punts on the following two drives, Clemson junior quarterback Trevor Lawrence led the Tigers on a nine-play, 63-yard drive. Senior running back Travis Etienne capped off the drive with a 16-yard run on third-and-two, breaking two tackles short of the first-down marker before breaking free for the touchdown.
“Etienne was very difficult to tackle and was probably the difference in the game,” Mendenhall said about the impact of the Clemson running back who is a projected first round NFL draft pick.
Down 10-0, the Cavalier offense looked to halt the Tigers’ momentum. Armstrong completed four of his next six passes in response, leading Virginia on a solid drive deep into Clemson territory capped off by a 27-yard field goal from senior kicker Brian Delaney.
Nevertheless, Lawrence and the Tiger offense built off the momentum created in their previous possession, marching down the field for a 75-yard touchdown drive. On a third-and-15 from the Virginia 27-yard line, Lawrence threw a pinpoint pass to senior wide receiver Amari Rodgers, who beat senior defensive back D’Angelo Amos for the touchdown.
On the ensuing drive, the Tiger defense forced Armstrong into his first mistake of the game when senior safety Nolan Turner intercepted a pass intended for backup quarterback Keytaon Thompson. Working with another short field, Lawrence only needed four plays to find Rodgers for another passing touchdown, extending the lead to 21 with 3:25 left in the second quarter.
After another exchange of punts, Virginia received the ball with 1:19 left on their own 35 yard line. Clemson freshman defensive lineman Bryan Bresee opened the drive with a sack after just a seven yard again. However, Armstrong led the Cavaliers to a strong first half finish, firing three straight completions for 72 yards, the last of which was a 23-yard touchdown strike to senior wide receiver Terrell Jana.
Looking to build off the momentum built at the conclusion of the first half, the Cavaliers marched quickly into the redzone, highlighted by a spectacular third-down jump ball catch by freshman wide receiver Lavel Davis Jr. The Tigers, however, quickly seized back momentum when sophomore cornerback Andrew Booth Jr. outlept Davis Jr. in the endzone for a spectacular one-handed interception.
Clemson capitalized off the Cavaliers’ second turnover of the game, ending their next drive with a 42-yard field goal by Potter, bringing the score to 27-10.
Down 17, Armstrong delivered strongly, marching the Cavaliers 75 yards down the field over nine plays. After the drive seemed to stall with a fourth-and-one on the Clemson 43-yard line, Mendenhall had a tough choice to make about whether to risk the play or punt — he ultimately pulled the trigger, trusting his quarterback to make a play and secure the down. Armstrong did just that, fooling the entire Tiger’s front seven on a read option play that gained 28 yards and later led to a play action touchdown pass to Thompson.
Lawrence continued to play like a bonafide Heisman candidate, following Armstrong’s touchdown drive with a six-play, 65 yard touchdown drive of his own, extending the lead back to 17 points.
The teams would trade touchdowns later in the fourth quarter, bringing the final score to 41-23. While it wasn’t the result the Cavaliers wanted, Virginia made leaps and bounds from last year’s 62-17 loss to the Tigers in the ACC Championship.
“We were more prepared as a coaching staff, our players were certainly more prepared after seeing what Clemson really looked like a year ago,” Mendenhall said.
In his second career start — facing the No. 1 team in the country — Armstrong showed he has the tools to be Virginia’s QB1, throwing for 270 yards and three touchdowns. While Armstrong did throw two interceptions, the experience against a national championship-caliber team will prove to be invaluable going forward.
Virginia returns to Charlottesville Oct. 10 for a matchup against NC State, who pulled off an upset victory over No. 24 Pittsburgh today. Kickoff is set for noon and the game will be broadcast live on the ACC Network.