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STEVE DeSHAZO: This season, Virginia has options—both the play and the personnel
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STEVE DeSHAZO: This season, Virginia has options—both the play and the personnel

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Illinois Virginia Football

Virginia’s Nick Grant (1) celebrates an interception by teammate Anthony Johnson (3) during an NCAA college football game against Illinois, Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021, at Scott Stadium in Charlottesville, Va. (Andrew Shurtleff/The Daily Progress via AP)

CHARLOTTESVILLE—Diversity is one of society’s new buzzwords, with businesses, schools and organizations seeking ways to be more inclusive. Through two games, Virginia’s offense seems to have a pretty good handle on things.

Saturday’s 42–14 romp over visiting Illinois featured a plethora of playmakers, formations and play calls—far too much for the weary and bleary Illini to defend in a game that started at 10 a.m. in their Central Daylight Time body clocks.

“We’ve got plenty of guys. Guys can do a lot on our team, and that just helps you in the long run,” junior quarterback Brennan Armstrong said. “It keeps guys fresh, and the more you can do, the more valuable you are. That’s how the world is.”

Armstrong certainly pulled his share of the load on Saturday, passing four a career-high 405 yards and four touchdowns, rushing five times for 31 yards and even catching an 18-yard pass from receiver Dontayvion Wicks on a double reverse.

On another day, on another team, Armstrong might be preparing a Heisman Trophy campaign after rolling up 744 passing yards and seven TDs in two lopsided victories. But he gladly shared the spotlight with a variety of teammates.

On Saturday, five Cavaliers had at least 50 receiving yards, and five contributed at least 20 rushing yards. Armstrong’s nominal backup, Keytaon Thompson, was the only player in both categories.

“It’s hard to narrow down on four different or five different threats and with a quarterback that’s making good decisions and fast decisions, throwing accurately, that’s leading to points,” Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall said.

And it’s not just a depth of personnel that makes this Virginia offense potentially as explosive as any since Shawn and Herman Moore were leading the Cavaliers to a brief stint atop the national polls three decades ago. Oft-maligned coordinator Robert Anae keeps rolling out formations to keep opponents off balance.

Late in the second quarter, with Armstrong in shotgun formation, Thompson—a former quarterback at Mississippi State—stopped his motion behind center and faked taking a direct snap. He then continued into the flat as confused Illini defenders trailed him. That left Wicks wide open for an easy 6-yard touchdown reception and a 21–7 lead.

Mendenhall said the ideas that are clicking now first came to him at BYU, where quarterback Tayson Hill’s versatility practically begged for offensive innovation. Adding transfers like Thompson and tight end Jelani Woods (from Oklahoma State) only strengthened his hand against teams who aren’t sure what or who to defend.

“We all have the same amount of [practice] time and it’s a race,” Mendenhall said. “And if you can’t name something, it’s harder to have the resources to prepare for it. Every minute counts and so the longer it takes to decipher it, and if it’s ever-changing, then might still not be enough time.”

It certainly helps to have pieces like Thompson, of whom Mendenhall said, “There might not be a player on our team more vital to what we do because of all the things he can do.”

Or the 6-foot-7 Woods, himself a former quarterback, who caught a 31-yard seam route from Armstrong on the game’s first play from scrimmage and a 32-yard TD three snaps later. Woods is still adjusting to Virginia’s tempo and was slowed by cramps in an opening win over William & Mary, but poses a decided matchup advantage.

“I’m glad to see someone else have to guard [Woods],” said Virginia linebacker Noah Taylor, who has tried to do so in practice. “A cornerback is going to be too small, and a linebacker is going to be too slow.”

And it’s worth mentioning that Virginia’s most dynamic receiver in 2020, sophomore Lavell Davis Jr., will miss the season with a torn ACL.

Armstrong spent a few minutes in the injury tent after taking a shot to the knee after catching Wicks’ pass, but didn’t miss any snaps. Losing him would certainly hurt the Cavaliers, but having Thompson behind (and sometimes alongside) him means it wouldn’t be devastating.

Virginia’s toughest tests lie ahead, and the Cavaliers still have to prove they can beat quality opponents on the road. But if they stumble, it probably won’t be for lack of firepower. And despite the strong start, Armstrong was still grumbling over two drives that ended with missed field goals.

“Our offense was clicking the whole time,” Armstrong said, “but we still left a lot on the table.”

Steve DeShazo: 374-5443

sdeshazo@freelancestar.com

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