CHARLOTTESVILLE — Upbeat hip hop replaced the Illinois fight song as the music blasting at Virginia football practice Tuesday morning, an easily audible indication the Cavaliers are looking to move on from Saturday’s 24-3 defeat.
“We don’t want that one loss to transpire into more losses,” senior linebacker Nick Jackson said after the workout.
The defeat, the first of the Tony Elliott era, raised a parade of red flags heading into this Saturday’s home game against Old Dominion. Virginia’s offensive line struggled mightily, derailing both the running game and the passing attack. Defensively, the Cavaliers gave up multiple big plays, a bugaboo from last season.
Billy Kemp’s muffed punt return that Illinois recovered for a touchdown brought special teams woes into the mix.
“I was trying to find some positives, but there wasn’t a ton of positive,” Elliott said. “The positive is we now understand what real work we’ve got to do with this offensive unit and team in general.”
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Brennan Armstrong, one of the most prolific quarterbacks in the nation last season, had a humbling afternoon, and Virginia’s offense had its least productive day since 2017. Against Illinois, the Cavaliers (1-1) gained just 222 total yards.
It was a shocking dip in production for an attack that averaged 515.8 yards and 34.6 points per game last season under the former coaching staff. Still, UVa’s defensive players insisted the offense’s output — or lack of — doesn’t impact their approach on game day.
“If they have a good game, they have a good game. If they don’t, they don’t,” safety Antonio Clary said. “We’re going to do our job no matter what.”
From offensive linemen unable to block the defenders in front of them, to receivers struggling to get off the line of scrimmage or create separation, Elliott said Virginia’s offense misfired in multiple areas.
“All the way around offensively we’ve got to do a better job of winning our one-on-one matchups,” Elliott said. “What was evident to me is when the bullets started flying, the guys abandoned their technique and they just tried to survive. And you can’t do that.”
Still, center Ty Furnish said there was no change in the first-team offensive line in Tuesday’s practice.
“Sticking with it,” he said.
Even more concerning for Elliott than the lack of offense or the defensive breakdowns, was what he perceived as a leadership void during the game, especially on the offensive side of the ball.
The sideline lacked energy, he said, eerily reminiscent to what Bronco Mendenhall found in his first defeat, the 2016 season opener against Richmond.
Elliott said that outside of senior wide receiver Keytaon Thompson, he didn’t see anyone successfully steadying and rallying the Cavaliers.
“The guys didn’t respond well to the adversity,” Elliott said. “Illinois punched us in the mouth, and the guys were reeling the entire game. You were hoping that somebody was going to step in and say, ‘Hey, fellas, follow me, I’ll find us a way out of this situation.’”
Elliott said he specifically challenged Armstrong — during the game and since — to have better communication with his wide receivers, urging the quarterback to coach his pass catchers to adjust their timing and routes when protection is failing the way it did Saturday.
Personally, Elliott said he handled the first loss of his head-coaching career much the same way he approached the previous weekend’s victory. He had a sleepless flight home, though he attributed that more to excessive air conditioning on the airplane than the loss, and the team’s late arrival — after 1 a.m. Sunday morning — meant he slept through his plan to go to church.
Outside of that, by late Sunday morning, he was shifting his focus to ODU.
And that’s what he’s tasked his team with doing, as well.
Notes: Elliott said outside linebacker Mike Green is no longer with the team. He declined further comment. ... Elliott said senior defensive back and former William Fleming standout Darrius Bratton returned to practice this week. Bratton is dealing with a high ankle sprain.