The 11 a.m. kickoff Saturday may have been the earliest Virginia has played since Coach Bronco Mendenhall came to Charlottesville, but the Cavaliers (2-0, 0-0 ACC) certainly looked ready to play, getting off to a quick start before holding on to win against Illinois. Virginia was able to find the end zone twice before the Fighting Illini (1-2, 1-0 Big Ten) even gained a first down.
After receiving the kickoff to start the game, Virginia marched down the field, scoring in just four plays. Junior quarterback Brennan Armstrong connected with junior tight end Jelani Woods for a 32-yard touchdown, and the Cavaliers took a quick 7-0 lead. Woods was a force to be reckoned with throughout the game with 63 receiving yards on the first drive alone.
The second drive was no different, as Virginia also scored on four plays, this time with a 28-yard reception from sophomore wide receiver Dontayvion Wicks that found the end zone. Overall, the first two drives were nearly opposite from last week’s plan against William & Mary — which featured a run-heavy attack early — with the passing attack taking full priority. When Armstrong starts 7-10 with 171 yards — a single-quarter career-high — and two touchdowns, though, the decision may have been easy for Mendenhall.
The run of offensive brilliance came to an end on Virginia’s third drive, where sophomore kicker Justin Duenkel missed a 46-yard field goal to keep the score at 14-0. Not all was lost, however, as the Cavaliers showed they could create push with their veteran offensive line. On a crucial fourth-and-1, a fantastic effort from senior running back Wayne Taulapapa, combined with great blocking, allowed Virginia to convert on the play. After the missed field goal, however, Virginia punted away its last possession of the quarter.
After some questions as to who would start for the Fighting Illini, it was sophomore quarterback Artur Sitkowski who took the first snap following the Virginia touchdown. Illinois could not get anything going on the first drive, however, ending with a third down stuff by senior cornerback Nick Grant and the Cavalier defense that forced a punt from the visiting side. In fact, it took until the beginning of the second quarter before Illinois even crossed midfield.
Virginia’s defensive secondary played particularly well in the first half, both in coverage and run support. Sitkowski had a rough start to his morning. While he, like Armstrong, completed seven of his first 10 passes, those plays went for just a combined 30 yards. Sitkowski’s 12th pass, however, was a good one, as he hit redshirt freshman receiver Deuce Spann for a 33-yard touchdown. That play should not take away from the fact that the cornerbacks especially looked much more comfortable. Grant and junior defensive back Anthony Johnson were all over the field, both breaking up passes and making strong open-field tackles. Grant undoubtedly lived up to his word when he said that “it’s never hard to wake up for game day.”
In the second quarter, Virginia went back to establishing a run presence in the game, although the drive was unfortunately ended by another missed field goal from Duenkel. If there was a negative takeaway from the first half for the Cavaliers, it was on special teams. Multiple missed field goals and a few penalties kept the score close throughout the second quarter, but a third touchdown pass to Armstrong — this time to a wide-open Wicks — pushed the lead to 21-7 just before halftime. Overall, while not a perfect half, the Cavaliers were absolutely the better team for the first 30 minutes in Scott Stadium.
Illinois received the ball to start the second half, and this time it was the Fighting Illini’s turn to march down the field for the score. At the conclusion of a four play drive that looked incredibly easy, sophomore running back Chase Brown found the end zone for a 21-yard Illinois touchdown to bring the score to 21-14. Virginia did what the Fighting Illini couldn’t in the first half, however, and responded with a long, 9-play drive of their own, ending with a two-yard touchdown reception from senior wide receiver Billy Kemp. The Cavaliers and offensive coordinator Robert Anae showed a little bit of everything on the drive, with Armstrong even catching a pass from Wicks at one point. The lead was pushed to two touchdowns once again, and Illinois did not get any closer for the rest of the game.
After the opening touchdown scored by Illinois, the Cavalier defense settled down a bit, forcing punts on the Fighting Illini’s next two drives. The third quarter was Virginia’s safeties’ turn to shine, starting with senior safety Joey Blount making an excellent tackle on an Illinois wide receiver to eventually force a punt out of the Fighting Illini. Blount and junior defensive back Antonio Clary then almost single handedly stopped the next drive from going anywhere before senior linebacker Noah Taylor finished it off with a sack of Sitkowski. Blount and Clary finished the day tied for first on the team in tackles.
Two more touchdowns by Virginia pushed the lead to 28 points deep into the fourth quarter, and it may have been more if it weren’t for a fumble just outside the red zone by Taulapapa and an interception thrown by Armstrong at the goal line. Armstrong had one of his best games as a Cavalier finishing with 405 yards and five touchdowns with one interception on the day. Woods, Wicks and Kemp all had great days receiving, with Woods breaking the 100-yard mark in just his second game as a Cavalier.
“The first challenge is, who do you match up with [Woods],” Mendenhall said. “There’s a matchup issue no matter what direction you go.”
On the defensive side of the ball, the secondary looked vastly improved, with plays being made all across the board, including a Johnson interception late in the game. Taylor and junior linebacker Nick Jackson also had great days, with Taylor having two massive sacks in important parts of the ballgame. Mendenhall seemed to agree with the idea that every defensive player on the field contributed Saturday.
“14 points in two games is a really nice start,” Mendenhall said. “This football team has a lot of contributors.”
Virginia will continue its season with its first road game of the year, travelling to Chapel Hill to take on North Carolina in the South’s Oldest Rivalry. Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m. Saturday, and the game will be televised on ACC Network.