Virginia’s offense didn’t sprint in Saturday’s victory over Duke. The Blue Devils’ tempo was faster, and early-season numbers show the Cavaliers seventh among 15 ACC teams in pace.
But UVA’s 84 snaps were its most in a game since a 2017 defeat at Indiana, where the Cavaliers logged 91 plays. Moreover, Virginia’s 2.43 snaps/minute of possession Saturday were markedly more than last season’s average of 2.08.
As you would expect from the metric-obsessed Bronco Mendenhall, this was absolutely intentional.
“Oh, it was by design,” he said. “We certainly thought in that particular game, even though it was our opener, we thought we had conditioned well. We thought it might be to our advantage. We thought it might be something the opponent wouldn’t expect. And we thought it might give us just an edge in terms of tempo, and hopefully playing fast and executing fast, getting rhythm and momentum and confidence.
“So, our intent was to be aggressive rather than tentative, even though we have a new quarterback. That was a way that we thought symbolically we could tell him we have confidence in him, and even put a little bit more on his plate. But we thought he could handle it.”
In his first college start, Brennan Armstrong handled it well, passing for 269 yards and two touchdowns in the 38-20 victory. The question is whether Virginia can, or should even attempt to, sustain that tempo Saturday at No. 1 Clemson.
The Tigers’ 62-17 dismantling of the Cavaliers in last year’s ACC championship game suggests the answer is no. Indeed, limiting possessions, rattling Trevor Lawrence and containing Travis Etienne are central to UVA, a four-touchdown underdog, remaining competitive into the fourth quarter.
The Cavaliers’ pace against Clemson last December was their second-quickest of the season, and the Tigers pounced. Clemson averaged 9.2 yards per snap, did not commit a turnover and set ACC title game records for total offense (619 yards), passing yards (408) and points.
But that Virginia defense was riddled by injuries, especially in the secondary. Last Saturday, the healthy Cavaliers had seven takeaways, including a school-record-tying five interceptions, two by safety Brenton Nelson.
The challenge for any Clemson opponent is pressuring/baiting Lawrence into interceptions. Lawrence has been pick-free for 10 consecutive games, two this season and the final eight of last year, and his streak of 276 passes without an interception is the third-longest in ACC history — former North Carolina State quarterbacks Russell Wilson (Collegiate) and Ryan Finley are 1-2 on that list with 379 and 339, respectively.
“He throws it where his receivers are, and they catch it,” UVA defensive coordinator Nick Howell said.
“Really, that’s what he’s done. He’s very accurate, and he reads defenses very well. He doesn’t make a lot of mistakes, and you can tell he’s a really smart player.”
With 100 of 134 votes, Lawrence was the landslide choice for ACC preseason player of the year. That’s a testament to his gifts — he’s the presumptive No. 1 choice of the 2021 NFL draft — and the lure of quarterbacks.
But Etienne, a senior running back, is the two-time reigning ACC player of the year, and if the pandemic allows a full season, he’ll shatter the league’s longstanding career rushing record. N.C. State’s Ted Brown gained 4,602 yards from 1975-78, and Etienne is at 4,208.
Etienne already owns conference records for career rushing touchdowns (57) and total TDs (63), and last season versus UVA he ran for 114 yards and a score on 14 carries.
“You have to keep No. 9 in front of you and tackle him, which we didn’t do,” Howell said of Etienne, “and you have to not let them launch the ball down the field, which is what they want to do. They’re built on explosion, and we gave up a ton of explosive plays, and we can’t allow that to happen.”
Clemson had 10 plays of at least 20 yards in that contest, including three passes of at least 50 yards. Receiver Tee Higgins, the game’s MVP, graduated to the NFL’s Cincinnati Bengals, and an offseason neck injury sidelined Justyn Ross, the Tigers’ top returning receiver.
But folks such as Frank Ladson Jr., Amari Rodgers and Joseph Ngata appear to be more than capable replacements.
Virginia running back Wayne Taulapapa and the offensive line can ease the defense’s burden by grinding out time-consuming drives, as can punter Nash Griffin by pinning the Tigers near their goal line.
Sure, all this efficiency is an XXL ask. But it will be necessary against a program that is, simply, the nation’s best.