After a severe blow suffered at the hands of Illinois last weekend, Virginia football returned to Charlottesville to take on in-state opponent Old Dominion for the second time since 2019. The Monarchs (1-2, 0-0 SunBelt) — facing the other half of the Commonwealth Cup rivalry after defeating Virginia Tech two weeks ago — almost managed to pull off the upset, yet senior quarterback Brennan Armstrong’s last minute heroics propelled the Cavaliers (2-1, 0-0 ACC) to victory. With the first ACC game on the horizon, Virginia secured a must-win game even amidst a trend of uncharacteristic mistakes.
In the early minutes of the first quarter, Armstrong and junior wide receiver Dontayvion Wicks once again struggled to establish last season’s rapport — with two missed deep balls and a drop negating key chances for Virginia. An ensuing Monarch drive resulted in a turnover on downs, giving the Cavaliers their second chance to gain some offensive momentum which was lacking in the Illinois game. Freshman running back Xavier Brown — having tallied nine carries for 88 yards in the win — helped propel junior running back Mike Hollis to its first touchdown of the day en route to a 7-0 first quarter lead.
Turnovers — a thorn in the side for Virginia throughout this early season — began to take hold in the second quarter. Old Dominion struggled to move the ball down the field multiple times throughout the first two quarters, yet the Cavaliers perpetuated some self-inflicted wounds after several errors from Armstrong. A 10-play drive following a Monarch punt — capped by a spot on the 4-yard line of Old Dominion — abruptly shifted after a fumble from junior running back Mike Hollins turned possession back over.
The team manifested déjà-vu after yet another punt from the Monarchs. Crawling into enemy territory, Armstrong lost control of the ball and Old Dominion capitalized with a 64-yard drive and a touchdown of its own. A sloppy half from both sides yielded a low-scoring 10-7 Cavalier lead at the break.
The lack of offensive production continued for both Virginia and Old Dominion into the third quarter. The Cavaliers — who marched down the field thanks to big gains from Wicks and senior wide receiver Keytaon Thompson — fumbled yet again as Armstrong was sacked at the 6-yard line of Old Dominion. Virginia thus squandered its best scoring opportunity of the quarter and committed its second red-zone turnover of the day.
Things started to heat up in the fourth quarter. A field goal from senior kicker Brendan Farrell after a slow drive from the Cavaliers gave them a 13-7 lead, yet a one-possession game remained. The Monarchs — who had not showcased much offensive potential albeit their late first-half touchdown — received a golden ticket after Farrell missed a 36-yard field goal with 3:07 to play in the contest. The Monarchs’ junior wide receiver Ali Jennings and junior tight end Zach Kuntz — a matchup nightmare who drew plenty of attention from the Cavaliers’ defense — shredded Virginia with an 80-yard touchdown drive as the clock wound down to just over a minute left.
Armstrong and company would not go quietly, as the former played his best football of the afternoon by setting up the Cavaliers with a short field goal attempt to seal a victory. Junior wide receiver Lavel Davis came up big with a 30-yard crossing route to keep the drive moving. Farrell’s prior missed kick would not hang over the heads of Cavalier fans after the game-winning one from Farrell sailed through the uprights. Armstrong — who once again recorded zero touchdowns — did help catalyze his offense when it mattered most.
“I feel, being conservative, that we probably left 20 points at least out there,” Coach Tony Elliott said. “The thing about it is if you capitalize on those scoring opportunities then that just puts more pressure on their offense.”
The alarming rate of turnovers left plenty of points out there for the Cavaliers — who will need to curb such mistakes before ACC play begins next week. Capitalizing on red zone opportunities is a must for a team that has shown less offensive firepower than in 2021, as Armstrong and his receiving options will hopefully gel as the season moves forward. The defense, however, once again impressed after stalling the Monarch offense on many occasions, only failing to show up late in the second and fourth quarters.
“There are mistakes that I’m making that I need to fix,” Armstrong said about his rapport with the wide receivers. “But I’m a veteran and have played five years of college ball so I think they have some trust in me from my experience. There’s some things I need to improve on that might make their trust waver, but we’re working on it.”
The Cavaliers will be making their ACC debut Friday in a clash between the old and new guard of Virginia coaches. Former offensive coordinator Robert Anae and quarterback coach Jason Beck — both of whom moved on to Syracuse after last season with the Cavaliers — will be familiar with their old team’s tendencies as Virginia travels to meet the Orange (3-0, 1-0 ACC). Kickoff is scheduled for 7 p.m., and the game will be televised on ESPN.