Virginia suffered its first loss of the Coach Tony Elliott era Saturday, 24-3 at Illinois, extending its four game losing streak against Football Bowl Subdivision opponents. Now, the Cavaliers (1-1, 0-0 ACC) will return to Scott Stadium looking to avenge that loss and beat Old Dominion (1-1, 0-0 Sun Belt). The Monarchs are coming off a nationally televised week one upset of rival Virginia Tech at home 20-17 and a loss at East Carolina last week, 39-21.
Players to Watch
Old Dominion junior wide receiver Ali Jennings
Entering week three, Jennings is the FBS’s leading receiver, racking up 322 yards and three scores on just 13 catches. The West Virginia transfer has caught a whopping 41 percent of sophomore quarterback Hayden Wolff’s completions and is the only Monarch pass catcher with 100 yards or a touchdown. With an anemic running game that’s barely cracked 100 yards on the season, Jennings III has been the Old Dominion offense.
At 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds, Jennings mainly serves as a downfield contested catch threat, but he has shown some elusiveness and the ability to break tackles and move the chains. Look for Virginia to either stick a corner — either junior Fentrell Cypress or senior Anthony Johnson — on him full time or potentially double cover the wideout. Shutting Jennings down will be key for the Cavalier defense.
Virginia senior quarterback Brennan Armstrong
Armstrong was one of the best passers in the sport under former Coach Bronco Mendenhall’s air raid offense in 2021. He came into this season with an outside shot at winning the Heisman Trophy, given to the best player in college football. However, through two games, the senior has been poor. After putting up an elite 9.2 adjusted yards per attempt last year, Armstrong is down to 5.1, 105th in the nation. Part of his struggles are due to a young offensive line, and his hyped up receiving corps has underperformed outside of junior wide receiver Lavel Davis. But the fact remains all three of his interceptions have been ugly, and he hasn’t quite found his rhythm in Elliott’s very different offensive scheme. Virginia needs vintage Armstrong to turn its season around, and torching Old Dominion could start that return process. Look to see Armstrong run a little more play-action and take deep shots to speedy wideouts.
Keys to the Game
Capitalizing on Turnovers
Since 2009, only two teams have lost to an FBS opponent by at least 21 points while creating at least four turnovers and keeping the opposition under 400 yards — Virginia was one of those teams on Saturday. The Cavaliers recovered three Illini fumbles and picked off quarterback Tommy Devito once, turning those four turnovers into exactly three points. If Virginia wants to win consistently, it’s going to have to capitalize on the opposition’s mistakes.
Old Dominion has been as good at profiting off of turnovers as the Cavaliers have been bad. Against Virginia Tech, the Monarchs defense created five turnovers and scored 17 of their 20 points on drives following those turnovers, allowing them to win a game where they were outgained by nearly 100 yards. At East Carolina, Old Dominion forfeited the turnover battle 2-0 and lost big as a result. If the Monarchs can create takeaways, then the Cavaliers may be on upset alert once again.
Offensive Line Play
As previously mentioned, Virginia’s offensive line was a huge liability on Saturday.
“For a quarterback, when they [Illinois] have five sacks, you could really tell it was wearing on him as the game went on,” Elliott said. “He didn’t trust his protection, he was moving in the pocket too much, 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.”
Illinois is a good defense, ranking 23rd in the defensive aspect of Bill Connelly’s SP+ ratings. But they made Virginia’s offense look downright bad, holding the Cavaliers to their lowest offensive output since a backup quarterback started against No. 9 Notre Dame last November.
These protection issues should get corrected against Old Dominion. The Monarchs have registered five sacks through their first two games, but only one against a Power Five opponent. They lack a star edge rushing corps and could struggle to create pressure. If Armstrong has a clean pocket, he may be able to finally set his feet and find one of Virginia’s many playmakers. If that can happen, then let the track meet begin.
SP+ projects Virginia to have a 10 point advantage in this contest, giving way to the perfect chance for the Cavaliers to bounce back against a non-Power Five foe. Kickoff is 2 p.m. Saturday at Scott Stadium. The game will be televised on ACCN.