CHARLOTTESVILLE — For a moment during halftime, Virginia linebacker Noah Taylor let himself ponder his opponent’s quandary.
Confronted by a dizzying array of formations and personnel groupings, ones that often included multiple quarterbacks on the field together, Taylor tried to put himself in the shoes of the Illinois defense trying to slow down UVa.
“I’m thinking in my head, ‘What are their halftime adjustments?’” said Taylor. “What do you say? They don’t know what we’re going to do. What are you saying at halftime?”
It’s the exact conundrum UVa coach Bronco Mendenhall said his team’s offense is designed to create, taking the usual coaching chess match and putting it on the clock. It played out to perfection in Saturday’s 42-14 win over the Illini, the Cavaliers’ highest-scoring output against a nonconference Power 5 opponent since scoring 47 against Indiana in 2009.
Quarterback Brennan Armstrong threw for 405 yards and five touchdowns on a day that four other Cavaliers threw the ball and Armstrong, himself, caught a pass.
In all, 12 players had either a catch or carry for Virginia.
Factor in a healthy helping of pre-snap motion, plenty of reverse action and one plus-sized, matchup nightmare of a tight end in Jelani Woods, and Mendenhall and offensive coordinator Robert Anae appear to have all the makings of an attack that can be one of the ACC’s most potent.
It’s a vision of offense the two men began crafting during their years at BYU, especially when they had current New Orleans Saints quarterback Taysom Hill. Hill’s varied skills — passer, runner, receiver — allowed them to design plays that created confusion and mismatches. They view Armstrong in a similar vein — and it’s a role the left-hander is relishing.
“It just puts pressure on them to decide what they want to do,” said Armstrong, who became just the third quarterback in UVa history to throw for over 400 yards in a game. “That stuff, you don’t know what’s really going to happen. You don’t know how they’re going to address it, but doing it, it just puts a lot of pressure on the players out there to quickly make a decision on what they want to do.”
The multiplicity of the Virginia offense leads to obvious confusion from opposing defenses — plenty of pre-snap finger-pointing and shouting to change matchups.
“Today especially,” said Thompson, who caught five passes, ran the ball four times and attempted a throw Saturday. “They was kind of getting confused about who should guard me, a safety or a linebacker. It’s mismatch problems all over the place, man, and we just look to exploit those.”
The impact on game day is obvious. UVa has scored 85 points in its first two games this year, its fastest start since outscoring Temple and North Carolina 100-38 in 2004.
But Mendenhall said there’s an additional, potentially more important, benefit to putting so many different offensive looks on video each week. For an opponent that only has a week — or less — to get ready for UVa, the more it has to prepare for, the less time it can spend on any one aspect of the Cavaliers’ offensive game.
In effect, Virginia begins stressing the opposing team on Sunday and Monday, long before the teams ever hit the field. It’s an approach Mendenhall said goes back to his time as a defensive assistant and coordinator.
“We all have the same amount of time and it’s a race,” said Mendenhall. “Every minute counts and so the longer it takes to decipher it, and if its ever-changing, it might still not be enough time.”
Now, it’s put two weeks of reverses, throwbacks and direct snaps on video for North Carolina to consider going into next weekend’s game in Chapel Hill, the ACC opener for UVa.
That’s the Tar Heels’ problem, and Virginia’s defenders appreciate that.
“Our offense can just do so much,” said senior safety Joey Blount. “They’re so multifaceted. It’s hard for a defense to guard a lot of those things. I’m glad I’m on their team so I don’t have to do it in a game.”