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What Does Virginia Football Look Like Without Brennan Armstrong?

Breaking down the frightening possibility of UVA football without the nation’s leading passer

Virginia’s 66-49 loss at BYU on Saturday night was catastrophic in more ways than one.

Quarterback Brennan Armstrong, who remains the nation’s leading passer with 3,557 passing yards, suffered a rib injury after a running play in the fourth quarter of the game. He was holding his ribs following the play but stayed in the game for one more snap. It became evident that the injury was very serious on that next play, as Armstrong was unable to put enough air on the ball and had his pass intercepted. Armstrong immediately walked off the field and could be seen telling the UVA sideline that he thought his rib was broken.

Armstrong went to the locker room and did not return to the game. Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall did not have an update on Armstrong’s condition in the postgame press conference, but confirmed that the team would need to prepare for the possibility of Armstrong’s absence going into the bye week before the final three games of the season.

With Armstrong’s status for the remainder of the season uncertain, it is time to face the possibility of Virginia having to go on without him leading the UVA offense, which is currently second in the nation in total offense at 545.2 yards per game, trailing only Ohio State.

Armstrong has been the catalyst for the explosive Cavalier offense, as he is the NCAA leader in both passing (3,557 yards) and total offense (3,828 yards). Even though Halloween has passed, it is quite a scary thought to consider what this Virginia offense might look like without Armstrong leading it.

That being said, Armstrong is no one-man band.

It is possible that a backup quarterback could slide into the role and have some success given the effectiveness of the rest of the Virginia offensive unit around the quarterback.

Before exiting the game on Saturday night, Armstrong set the Virginia single-season passing record with 3,557 yards, surpassing Bryce Perkins’ mark set in the 2019 season. Armstrong has earned that record, but it would be a disservice not to mention the talented receiving core that caught the passes from Armstrong, as well as the solid and experienced UVA offensive line that has given Armstrong plenty of time to throw the ball this season.

Virginia is the only team in the country with five players with at least 400 receiving yards on the season. Dontayvion Wicks is fifth in the country with 972 receiving yards and nine touchdowns. He is the only player on a Power Five team with at least 900 receiving yards and nine touchdown catches. Billy Kemp leads the team in receptions with 59 and has 562 receiving yards and six touchdowns this year. Both Kemp and Wicks are on the watch list for the Biletnikoff Award, given to the most outstanding receiver in college football.

The football player Keytaon Thompson has excelled both as a ball carrier and as a pass-catcher, hauling in 51 receptions for 663 yards. Massive tight end Jelani Woods has 29 receptions for 446 yards and six touchdowns. Finally, Ra’Shaun Henry has 28 catches for 493 yards and two touchdowns. All five of these players are top-tier college football receivers who have played a significant role in the success Armstrong has had this season.

Brennan Armstrong has been excellent at finding these receivers and getting them the ball in an accurate and timely fashion, but the receivers have certainly held up their end of the bargain. They are effective route-runners, making it extremely difficult for opposing cornerbacks to cover them, and they are also very tough to bring down after they have the ball in their hands, especially Woods and Thompson, who usually take three or four defenders to the ground with them. The UVA receiver core is pretty good with their hands, too. In particular, Dontayvion Wicks has shown a remarkable ability to come down with catches despite a high degree of difficulty.

None of this is to discredit the tremendous achievements attained by Brennan Armstrong this season. But, when you see some of these catches that the UVA receivers like Dontayvion Wicks are making, you start to consider the possibility that a backup quarterback might have some success throwing the ball to these extremely talented receivers.

That brings us to the question of who will be replacing Brennan Armstrong if he cannot play.

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Freshman Jay Woolfolk was given the nod to replace Armstrong in the fourth quarter against BYU. Trailing by 17 points late in the fourth quarter against a ranked opponent, it was not exactly a fair assessment of Woolfolk’s abilities as a quarterback. It was also a very small sample size, as the Cavaliers had just one possession before the game ended and Woolfolk played just seven snaps. Woolfolk drove Virginia to the BYU 34-yard line before the Hoos turned the ball over on downs. He completed two of five passing attempts for 35 yards and ran the ball twice for six yards. Woolfolk showed some promise in his earlier appearances this season, especially as a ball carrier, but we have still rarely seen him throw the ball.

There are several players with quarterback experience on the roster, including Woolfolk, Ira Armstead, Jacob Rodriguez, Keytaon Thompson, and even tight end Jelani Woods. It is unlikely that we will see Keytaon Thompson attempting passes, but it is possible that Virginia will attempt more plays that start with Thompson getting the direct snap from the wildcat position. Rodriguez and Armstead also have been involved in other roles in the UVA offense this season, both as receivers and ball carriers. Unfortunately, none of these players have had many opportunities to throw the ball this season and the two most likely candidates, Woolfolk and Armstead, have totaled just two completions on eight passing attempts this year.

Bronco Mendenhall has many options at quarterback and it is possible that we will see Virginia try to replace Armstrong by committee if he is not able to play.

The bigger issue is that Armstrong’s absence would put more pressure on an already struggling Virginia defense. Even with a fully healthy Armstrong and the UVA offense firing on all cylinders, the Cavaliers struggled to keep up with the Cougars, who put up an astounding 66 points on the Virginia defense on Saturday night.

UVA’s defense has been the weakness of the team all season long. Back in week three against North Carolina, Armstrong set the UVA single-game passing record with 554 passing yards, but Virginia still lost to UNC by 20 points, as the Tar Heels torched the UVA defense for 699 yards of total offense. Even that ridiculous level of offensive output by UNC was topped by BYU on Saturday night in Provo, as the Cougars put up 734 yards of total offense and nine touchdowns against Virginia. Virginia scored 49 points, the most ever in a UVA loss. The Cavaliers gave up 66 points, the most they have allowed in 44 years.

Even with Armstrong healthy, it was imperative that the Virginia defense improve if the Hoos wanted any chance of beating teams like Notre Dame and Pittsburgh down the stretch. UVA did not need the defense to suddenly turn into the Georgia Bulldogs, but the Cavaliers just needed to improve a little bit on the defensive end to give themselves the upper hand in these crucial games in the final third of the season.

If Armstrong is not able to play in these final games, the UVA defense will need to undergo a total transformation if Virginia wants to have even a remote chance to win the ACC Coastal Championship.

We hope that we have not seen the last of Brennan Armstrong on the field this season. But, if his season is indeed over, what a season it was.

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