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Virginia travels to Illinois, looks to improve to 2-0 under Coach Tony Elliott

The Cavaliers hope to grow from the Richmond game and stay undefeated against the Illini

<p>The Cavaliers will need to continue employing a balanced attack in order to lessen the burden on senior quarterback Brennan Armstrong's passing.</p>

The Cavaliers will need to continue employing a balanced attack in order to lessen the burden on senior quarterback Brennan Armstrong's passing.

After starting Coach Tony Elliott’s reign with an uneven and sloppy 34-17 win against Football College Subdivision team Richmond, the Cavaliers (1-0, 0-0 ACC) will travel to Champaign, Ill. to take on the perennially underachieving Illini (1-1, 0-1 Big Ten) Saturday afternoon. The Illini won their opener against lowly Wyoming 38-6 before losing to conference foe Indiana 23-20 on a last minute, backbreaking drive. 

This is a rematch of Virginia’s second football game a year ago, when the Cavaliers demolished the Illini 42-14. This game was when senior quarterback Brennan Armstrong put the nation on notice, with the signal caller throwing for 405 yards and five touchdowns. The defense, though leaky most of the year, allowed only two scores and forced a pair of turnovers. The Cavaliers will go into this contest hoping to play as complete a game as they did against Illinois last year.

Players to Watch

Illinois junior running back Chase Brown

Illinois has embraced a run-heavy identity in the last few years, running the ball nearly 60 percent of the time in 2021 and 56 percent so far in 2022. Brown is the back that makes that success work. In 2021, the 5-foot-11, 200-pound back cracked 1,000 yards rushing and is well on his way to repeating that performance this year. Over his first two games this year, Brown has had 55 carries for 350 yards and two touchdowns. He nearly carried Illinois to victory over a tough Indiana team, in spite of senior quarterback Tommy Devito’s mediocre performance. He could wreak havoc against Virginia’s front seven.

Virginia junior cornerback Fentrell Cypress II

Cypress played sparingly in an experienced secondary last year, but had a solid game in his first career start against Richmond. The junior notched eight tackles and took the majority of his snaps against the Spiders’ couple receivers. He also contributed to a huge momentum swing, breaking up a deep pass on fourth down to kill a Richmond rally. Against Illinois, he should see most of his snaps defending Illinois sophomore wideout Isaiah Williams, who has 16 catches for 148 yards and a score so far this season. He should see a lot of DeVito’s targets, and keeping those balls away from Williams could be key in keeping Illinois off the board. 

Keys to the Game

Stopping Illinois on the ground

Virginia’s defense has been weak for a few years now, and nowhere is it weaker than along the defensive line. Last week, Richmond’s Savon Smith and Aaron Dykes, zero and two-star recruits, respectively, torched the Cavalier defense for 164 yards on 30 carries. If the Cavalier defensive line had that much trouble containing two small school tailbacks, then stopping Brown, one of the shiftiest backs in college football, could prove fatal. Look for Elliott to play lots of defenders close to the line of scrimmage to dare DeVito to air it out.

Creating a Balanced Attack

As former Coach Bronco Mendenhall’s tenure progressed, Virginia’s offense got more and more pass-happy. This culminated last year, with the Cavaliers airing it out a hefty 62 percent of the time. Elliott has spoken at length about creating a balanced attack this year. 

“Things are going to be different than what you've done in the past,” Elliott said. “So we're going to work really, really hard to be a balanced team and establish the run, and then allow you to benefit with all the things that come off of it.” 

True to his word, the Richmond game saw the most run-heavy Cavalier offense in years. Armstrong and senior Perris Jones became the first U.Va. teammates to break 100 yards on the ground in the same game since 2018, and Armstrong added 246 yards through the air. Another weekend of both facets of the offense firing would be tough for the more one-dimensional Illini to overcome. 

This game was a cakewalk last year, but the combination of the road environment, a new Virginia coach and an improved Illinois squad could conspire to make a much harder matchup this time around. Kickoff is set for 4 p.m. Saturday and will be televised on ESPNU.

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