Things have not fallen the way of Virginia this season. A winless ACC slate after three games has epitomized what has been a largely underwhelming start to the new era of Coach Tony Elliott in Charlottesville. Another opportunity for the first conference victory of the season awaits, however, in an away matchup against Georgia Tech Thursday night.
The Yellow Jackets (3-3, 2-1 ACC) — having notably fired former Coach Geoff Collins after a 1-3 start to the 2022 campaign — have turned things around after back-to-back wins against a ranked Pittsburgh team and Duke. The Cavaliers (2-4, 0-3 ACC) — who have not tasted victory in a month — will face another solid test against Georgia Tech on the road.
Virginia is winless in its three away games and will have to compete under the lights Thursday night, but Bobby Dodd Stadium is not an atmosphere that will completely throw them off their game with the Yellow Jackets averaging under 40,000 in attendance. It is essentially now-or-never — as the statement has been for the past several weeks — for a team whose chances of a bowl appearance are rapidly diminishing. The embarrassing loss to a senior quarterback Malik Cunningham-less Louisville team may motivate the Cavaliers to chase their first ACC victory.
Is the Virginia defense steadily regressing?
One of the bright spots for a porous Virginia season has manifested itself in the play of the defensive unit. With the hiring of John Rudzinski, former Air Force defensive coordinator, the Cavaliers have looked the part against Syracuse, Old Dominion and Richmond. Yet, the most recent games have shown reason for worry. A 38-point effort from Duke and a second-half blitz from Louisville are evidence of the apparent regression of this unit. While the offense has struggled to put points on the board, it is becoming increasingly questionable that the defense will help this team to win games in the future. An ACC Coastal threat in Georgia Tech looms for Coach Rudzinski’s unit, which desperately needs to return to its former level of play to give Virginia a chance in Atlanta.
How has the departure of Collins affected the Yellow Jackets?
Interestingly enough, the early season coaching change has worked wonders for Georgia Tech — who has followed up a 1-3 start with two massive wins in ACC play. Granted, Collins had to deal with ACC juggernaut No. 5 Clemson, No. 7 Ole Miss, and a rising top-25 program in Central Florida (UCF) out of the gates. Interim Coach Brent Key has helped the Yellow Jackets offensively through a jump in points scored per game and the visible improvement of sophomore quarterback Jeff Sims’ play. Georgia Tech seems to be carrying plenty of momentum into the rest of ACC play on the shoulders of their interim coach, who despite the blemishes on the record has given this team a chance to compete in the ACC Coastal.
Players to watch
Virginia senior wide receiver Keytaon Thompson
Despite the lack of a strong rapport between Armstrong and his wide receiving corps, the connection with Thompson has been the steadiest of them all. The leading receiver for Virginia in the past four games, Thompson has been a rock in the middle of the field as a move-the-chains type of receiver in Virginia’s offensive system. The senior — who has not recorded a touchdown this season — is otherwise the most productive player on this roster amidst the offensive stagnancy that the Cavaliers have encountered. Expect Armstrong to pepper his favorite target in a game script which will likely force Virginia to throw the ball even more.
Georgia Tech senior linebacker Ayinde Eley
Eley has been the straw that stirs the drink for this Georgia Tech defensive unit. A transfer from Maryland in 2021, Eley has tallied the most total tackles for the Yellow Jackets and is currently second on the team in sacks and tied for second in passes defended. The senior consistently flies around and makes plays for this defense, including a 14 tackle, one sack effort in the Yellow Jackets’ upset over Pittsburgh. A key concern for the Cavaliers will be containing Eley off of the edge in order to protect senior quarterback Brennan Armstrong. With a new offensive line still meshing, Armstrong’s security and time in the pocket are paramount.
The stakes are once again high for the Cavaliers as they travel to Atlanta Thursday. Will Cavalier fans witness the resurgence of Armstrong — still searching for a breakout game in 2022 — or this formerly potent Virginia defense? Kick-off is scheduled for 7:30 p.m., and the game will be televised on ESPN.