Despite high hopes for a second win over Illinois in two years, the Cavaliers found themselves overwhelmed and out of whack en route to a 24-3 loss on the road. Virginia senior quarterback Brennan Armstrong — even with the bevy of proven wide receivers at his disposal — struggled in an unusual showing after recording two interceptions and zero touchdowns. Altogether, the Cavaliers (1-1, 0-0 ACC) seemed unrecognizable from the team which dominated the Fighting Illini (2-1, 0-1 Big Ten) 42-14 in 2021, with too many uncharacteristic mistakes plaguing them along the way.
In the first minutes of the contest, the Cavaliers actually flexed some defensive strength after an interception of Illinois senior quarterback Tommy DeVito’s pass — his first attempt of the day. A quick three-and-out from the Virginia offense gave the Fighting Illini the ball deep in their own territory, and once again the Cavalier defense managed to produce a turnover — a fumble several yards downfield from junior running back Chase Brown. The latter turnover would yield the only points of the day from the Virginia offense, who turned good field position into a field goal at the 11:08 minute mark in the first quarter.
After yet another impressive possession by Virginia’s defense, things started to take a turn for the worst. A fumbled punt return from senior wide receiver Billy Kemp led to an easy touchdown from the Illini, giving them a 7-3 lead off another mistake by the Cavaliers. The offense — having shown flashes of brilliance against Richmond — could not find its footing whatsoever as another third-and-out resulted in a successful drive from Illinois. Thanks to the running of Brown, the Illini capped off a quick-hitting series of plays with a 39-yard touchdown pass to extend their lead to 14-3.
The series of unfortunate events continued for Virginia late into the first quarter and early into the second, with a lengthy punt return, a 43-yard strike from DeVito and an ensuing touchdown pushing the Cavalier deficit to 18. A fumble recovery from the Virginia defense allowed Armstrong to convert a deep ball to junior wide receiver Lavel Davis Jr. — a play which was subsequently clouded by a missed Cavalier field goal. Even at such an early juncture, the Illini seemed to have put the nail in the coffin. Both the offensive and defensive lines revealed their weaknesses through poor pass protection and substandard run stopping, while Armstrong could not connect with the majority of his talented receiving corps.
The second half — capped by only one field goal from Illinois late in the third quarter — witnessed a complete lack of offensive firepower by both sides. Nothing could click for the Virginia offense even after a halftime reset, with two interceptions from Armstrong only furthering the struggle to put points on the board. Sophomore quarterback Jay Woolfolk — the starter in the Cavaliers’ 2021 matchup against Notre Dame — eventually saw some action and finished the game as Virginia’s leading rusher — having tallied one carry for 31 yards which got Virginia the closest to the endzone it had been all afternoon. However, the combination of Woolfolk and Armstrong was not able to deliver a touchdown, turning it over on downs.
“He was throwing off his back foot, he had some wide open guys and, you know, just felt the pressure and never could get settled to be able to go through his progressions,” Coach Tony Elliott said of Armstrong and his linemen’s struggles on Saturday. “So overall, offensive line-wise, I was disappointed in how they played.”
Five sacks befell Armstrong, who never seemed to gain any footing in the lopsided loss. A completely overhauled offensive line left the quarterback vulnerable in the pocket on several occasions, yet the senior also struggled to connect with his wide receivers throughout. junior wide receiver Dontayvion Wicks — the leading receiver for the Cavaliers in 2021 — only caught two passes for 23 yards, while Kemp broke his streak of 28 consecutive games with a reception.
On the other hand, the Virginia defense looked stout at times and forced a total of four turnovers. One of the worst offensive performances in recent Cavalier football history overshadowed the defensive side of the ball, who, despite their inconsistencies defending the run, made impressive strides. Nonetheless, the Cavaliers will have to move on and learn from this defeat as ACC play looms.
“That was a rough day at the office right there, but hey, you live and you learn and grow, and we’re gonna find a way to get better from it,” Elliott said.
An in-state opponent and a recent winner over Virginia Tech awaits in Old Dominion, as Virginia returns to Scott Stadium Saturday to take on the Monarchs (1-1, 0-0 SunBelt). Kickoff will start at 2 p.m., and the game will be televised on ACC Network.