Last year, the Virginia Cavaliers went 6-6, including a 42-14 victory over the Illini. So far, the Cavaliers are 1-0 with a win over Richmond and will face the Illini in Champaign. Let’s preview what Virginia will look like Saturday afternoon.
Since 2016, Bronco Mendenhall was the head coach of Virginia but resigned in the offseason and was replaced by Tony Elliot. Elliot was on the Clemson coaching staff for the past 11 years and the offensive coordinator for 7 years. He was a highly accomplished coordinator at Clemson and hopes to replicate this at Virginia.
In the offseason, Tony Elliott brought in NC State’s offensive coordinator Des Kitchings. Last year, the Virginia offense was the third-best in total offense and was efficient throwing the ball. He has transitioned Virginia’s offense from an air raid offense to a more balanced attack as they struggled immensely in the running game last year. This new run game was prevalent in the first game of the season.
On the defensive end, Virginia hired John Rudzinski who transformed the Air Force into one of the best defenses last year. Before Rudzinski, Virginia was one of the worst defenses in the nation which led to them losing many close games.
The Cavaliers’ offense is led by Brennan Armstrong, who torched the Illini defense last year. In addition to beating Illinois, Armstrong set the single-season program record for total yards on offense, passing yards, and passing touchdowns. Last week, Armstrong threw for two touchdowns and ran for a 64-yard touchdown. He is productive at both throwing and running the ball and is a playmaker for the Virginia offense.
Perris Jones, a former walk-on, is the top name in the Virginia running game. He ran for 104 rushing yards, 14 receiving yards, and had two touchdowns in the game against Richmond.
He is more of a power running back and hopes to replicate his performance against Illinois. Virginia’s backup is Mike Hollins, who has more potential than Jones but has struggled to put everything together.
The Virginia Wide receivers are led by Dontayvion Wicks, who broke Virginia’s single-season receiving record last year with 57 catches for 21 yards per catch and 9 touchdowns. This earned him First-Team All-ACC Honors and against Richmond, he had 6 receptions for 47 yards. He has great speed and route-running ability.
The Cavaliers also have Level Davis, who is 6-foot-7 and didn’t play last season after an injury. Against Richmond, Davis had 4 receptions for 89 yards and a touchdown. Keytaon Thomas earned Second Team All-ACC last year when he had 78 grabs for 990 yards. Both are effective wide receivers who could break off big yards against the Illini.
The Cavaliers offensive line lost all its starters after last year and return Jonathan Leech, who is dealing with an injury and didn’t play against Richmond. This is a potential place of weakness for the Cavaliers which the Illini will need to exploit.
Last year, the Cavaliers struggled majorly on defense and ranked 121st out of 130 teams, and allowed 466 yards per game. They struggled at every component of defense, which led to many games becoming shootouts. The defense returns many starters and held Richmond to 17 points with 2 sacks. Virginia plays a five-defensive back system where there are versatile positions that can shift in different situations.
Defensive end Kam Butler transferred from Miami (Ohio) where he was first team All-MAC in 2021 and had 53 tackles and 8 sacks. He is looking forward to making a big impact for the Cavaliers this year.
Virginia’s defensive leader is Nick Jackson, a two-time All-ACC selection who led the ACC with 117 tackles last season. In the first game against Richmond, he had 14 total tackles and 1 tackle for loss. He is the clear leader of the Virginia defense and can make big plays. While improved, the Virginia defense is still the weakest part of the team and can be exposed by the Illinois offense.
The Virginia Cavaliers pose a big threat to the Illini, especially on the offensive end. Last week, the Illini secondary blew deep coverages throughout the game so look for Virginia to come out and challenge the Illini defense with the deep ball. For the Illini defense, they need to find a way to get pressure only had 1 sack and struggled to pressure the quarterback. Slowing down Brennan Armstrong will be crucial for the Illini.
While this is a winnable game for the Illini, they will need a more complete performance than seen against Indiana. Illinois and Virginia are both looking towards making a bowl game this season, so the game is decided by whoever is more consistent.