With 2:02 left in Virginia’s Halloween bout against then-No. 15 North Carolina, fifth-year Cavaliers head coach Bronco Mendenhall rolled the dice. After all, UVA was 1-4, and the Tar Heels had just rattled off 14 points in the final frame to cut their deficit to 44-41.
Mendenhall called a fake punt: a direct snap to No. 99, Mississippi State transfer quarterback Keytaon Thompson. The Swiss Army knife trailed right before turning on a dime and veering toward the first-down marker. Thompson absorbed contact near the sticks and dragged his tackler a few yards forward, moving the chains in the process.
Just like that, the complexion of UVA’s season changed. The Cavaliers ran out the clock, clinching a top-15 upset. It was the start of a three-game win streak. All that stood in the way of UVA’s momentum was a COVID-19 postponement last Saturday at Florida State.
Now, the Cavaliers look to crank the engine again this weekend with Boston College coming to town. UVA is .500 on paper but an entirely different team the past six weeks.
When is BC playing?
Saturday, Dec. 5, 3:30 p.m.
Where is BC playing?
Scott Stadium, Charlottesville, Va.
How to watch?
This game will be broadcast on NESN and ACC RSN.
BC leads the all-time series, 6-0. The schools first met in 1963 yet didn’t play again until 1994 when they met in the Carquest Bowl. Glenn Foley threw for 391 yards, the Eagles clocked out with 557 yards of total offense, and Tom Coughlin ended his three-year stay at BC with a 30-21 postseason victory, capping a 9-3 season. The Eagles’ last win over the Cavaliers came at Scott Stadium in 2017. Following his four-touchdown breakthrough at Louisville, running back AJ Dillon got his first career start. But redshirt freshman quarterback Anthony Brown was the standout. Brown was 19-of-24 for 275 yards and three touchdowns. He also carried the ball five times for 32 yards. BC stormed out to a 17-0 first quarter lead and never looked back, defeating a previously 5-1 UVA team in its second year under Mendenhall, 41-10. It marked the first time in program history that the Eagles scored 40-plus points in back-to-back ACC games.
UVA’s record: 4-4 (3-4 ACC)
Breaking Down the Cavaliers:
Offense: Brennan Armstrong had some big shoes to fill. Last season, second-year starter Bryce Perkins passed for 3,538 yards and recorded 1,011 yards on the ground (not including sacks), leading UVA to its first-ever Coastal Division title and Orange Bowl appearance. Armstrong hasn’t produced at quite the same level, but he’s certainly shown promise. The redshirt sophomore left-hander is averaging 281.4 yards of total offense per contest, good for sixth in the ACC. In seven games this season, Armstrong has piled up 1,571 yards and 15 scores through the air. He also leads the Cavaliers with 94 carries, 399 yards on the ground, and is tied with running back Wayne Taulapapa for the most rushing touchdowns (four) on the team.
Armstrong threw six picks in his first three games before suffering a concussion. Since returning, however, he’s posted a 10:2 touchdown-to-interception ratio. The Cavaliers have gone 3-1 in that span. He has great protection up front. In fact, UVA’s O-Line enters this week with the 19th-highest Pro Football Focus pass-blocking grade. The Cavaliers have given up just 14 sacks all year, averaging the second-fewest sacks allowed per game in the ACC this season.
Armstrong has a bunch of weapons, starting with Billy Kemp IV. The 5-foot-9 speedster acts as more of a receiver than a halfback. He leads the team with 52 receptions—20 more than any other Cavalier—and 517 receiving yards. Although Terrell Jana’s numbers aren’t what they were in 2019, the senior is second on UVA’s reception leaderboard with 32 catches. The team’s primary red zone threats are wide receiver Lavel Davis Jr. and tight end Tony Poljan. Both are 6-foot-7 with five touchdowns this year.
Defense: The Cavaliers run a 3-4 defense that’s proved effective limiting opponents’ work on the ground this season. UVA ranks 45th nationally—and fourth in the ACC—in rushing defense. Nick Howell and Kelly Poppinga’s unit has kept three teams under the century mark this year, including UNC, which boasts the 22nd-best rushing attack in the country. The Cavaliers returned most of their front seven from last year, and it’s paid dividends. Nick Jackson leads the team with 85 total tackles. Fellow linebacker Zane Zandier is the defense’s front man, though. The senior eclipsed 100 total tackles last season and has added 67 more to go along with 2.5 sacks this year. Jeff Hafley noted that Noah Taylor “jumped out on the tape,” too.
As far as pass rushing is concerned, Charles Snowden was the name to know. The 6-foot-7 linebacker ranks seventh in the ACC with six sacks this year yet sustained a season-ending ankle injury against Abilene Christian on Nov. 21. UVA, as a team, is also seventh in the league with 28 quarterback takedowns. Starting defensive ends Adeeb Atariwa and Mandy Alonso haven’t generated nearly as much pressure as the linebacking corps, combining for a mere two sacks this year (granted, Atariwa missed three games this fall).
That said, where the Cavaliers are particularly deficient is the backend. UVA is dead last in the conference and 116th nationally in pass defense. Four of its seven 2020 ACC opponents have thrown for more than 300 yards. The Cavaliers have some playmakers in the secondary such as D’Angelo Amos (46 total tackles, three passes defended, and one interception) and De’Vante Cross (four passes defended, one interception), but the group has struggled against the big play, having allowed 34 completions of 25-plus yards, the third-most in the nation.
Special Teams: Place kicker Brian Delaney hasn’t gotten many opportunities this season. When his number’s been called, though, he’s often answered. The senior is 7-of-9 on the year with a 42-yard long. He’s converted 30-of-31 extra points as well. It’s worth noting that Delaney drilled 4-of-5 from beyond 40 in 2019, including a 49-yarder. Classmate Nash Griffin ranks ninth in the ACC in punting average, booting the ball approximately 43 yards per punt. UVA is 10th in the league in both kickoff and punt return average.
Will BC attack the Cavaliers through the air?
Hafley said this week that he didn’t notice anything on tape that made him think, “Wow, we gotta throw the ball against these guys.” Whether that’s coach speak is up for interpretation. UVA is last in the ACC in pass defense and has given up several game-changing pass plays downfield this year. If Phil Jurkovec (left knee) is healthy, it’s hard to imagine BC not finishing the regular season the way it started it: by running its offense through its aerial attack.
Can the Eagles contain Brennan Armstrong?
Over the past six games, BC has allowed quarterbacks to run for 73.7 yards per game. Malik Cunningham just carved up the Eagles’ defense for 133 yards on the ground. Armstrong can pull the ball on the zone-read, plow up the middle with power, or boot off play-action. He’s busted a run longer than 20 yards in four of his seven games this year, in all of which he eclipsed the 50-yard rushing mark. Keeping Armstrong in check will be BC’s toughest test.
Which tight end will have a greater impact on the game: Hunter Long or Tony Poljan?
Hunter Long and Poljan are two of the ACC’s most prolific tight ends. Long (576 receiving yards) has a significant edge in receiving yards over Poljan (300). That said, they’ve both hauled in at least 30 balls this year. Long (4.9 catches per game) and Poljan (3.8 catches per game) rank 9th and 16th, respectively, in receptions per game in 2020. Long hasn’t had an outing with more than four grabs since BC’s win over Pittsburgh on Oct. 10. Defenses have been keying in on the redshirt junior. We’ll see if that remains the case this weekend.
Line: UVA (-3.5)
ESPN FPI: The database gives UVA a 57.1% chance of beating the Eagles.
Outlook: Hafley leads all first-year head coaches with six wins this season. He’s not only revitalized the BC fan base but also overseen an impressive COVID-19 prevention effort—the Eagles haven’t had a single positive test since workouts began in June. BC has a chance Saturday to round out the regular season with a winning record in ACC play for the first time since 2009. But UVA, one year removed from a revolutionary season of its own, is the favorite. The Cavaliers are riding a three-game win streak with a dual-threat quarterback who could very well expose BC’s biggest weakness. With bowls being canceled left and right, this might just be the Eagles’ final chance to add to what’s already been an undeniably memorable season.