Despite Virginia’s rough start, Brennan Armstrong is right where she wants to be

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – Brennan Armstrong is not one to shy away from a problem. That’s one thing his former coach, Bronco Mendenhall, loves about him. Mendenhall hovered over the offense during Virginia’s practices, close enough to hear every word that came out of his quarterback’s mouth, and when the unit struggled, the monologues often got off-kilter.

“He would curse like a sailor,” Mendenhall said. “But it was authentic.”

It’s no surprise, then, that nearly a month into his first season without Mendenhall leading the team, Armstrong isn’t trying to sell Virginia’s early offensive woes as anything other than a serious problem. The situation is ugly.

“I’m pretty disappointed right now,” Armstrong said after Saturday’s 16-14 win over Old Dominion, where he led the offense with a frantic drive to set up the game-winning field goal as time expired. “I’m so used to having this powerful offense, and when I don’t feel it and I don’t have it, it frustrates me.”

It wasn’t meant to be. Armstrong could have chosen a different path, perhaps a much easier one. This is the era of name, image and likeness money and the freedom of broadcast portals, and Armstrong had his fair share of suitors this season. Instead, he decided to stay put, push his chips into the middle of the table with a new coaching staff led by first-time head coach Tony Elliott and a new scheme, all of which created a real threat that his final season… – the one that could make or break his NFL career ’s prospects — could turn into a rebuilding season for the Cavaliers.

When Armstrong made the choice, he was hailed as a case study in loyalty in an era when it is a rare commodity. It only took two games for even Virginia fans to wonder if loyalty was overrated.

A year after Armstrong emerged as one of the nation’s most prolific QBs, throwing for nearly 4,500 yards and 40 touchdowns — 31 through the air — in just 11 games, things are looking bleak in Charlottesville.

Through three games last season, Virginia’s offense had scored 124 points.

Through three games this year, the Hoos have scored just 53 and Armstrong has just two TDs, both coming in the FCS opener against Richmond.

Now Armstrong is ready to face the coaching staff that made him a star. The Cavaliers take on 3-0 Syracuse on Friday (7 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App) to take on a high-energy offense led by former Virginia coordinator Robert Anae and QB coach Jason Beck.

Given the reunion, it might be a good time for Armstrong to take a step back and reevaluate his decision to think about what might have been. But one thing the outspoken quarterback won’t say, no matter how thoroughly he’s ostracized ahead of his reunion with Anae & Co., is that he has any regrets.

“Yeah, I left out the coaching change and the zero money you could have pocketed at another school, all that good stuff,” Armstrong said. “You probably don’t see too many QBs that show it off, but I’m happy with it.”

VIRGINIA FINISHED HER 2021 regular season with four straight losses, including a painful fourth quarter against rival Virginia Tech. After that, Armstrong thought he was ready to move on, with his sights set on the NFL draft.

Then Mendenhall announced his resignation.

Then Virginia’s bowl game was canceled.

Then the NFL ratings came back, giving Armstrong a myriad of concerns, including the Air Raid system he had learned but didn’t tend to translate to the next level.

He was considered a late-round pick with upside.

“He doesn’t have wow-you-over arm strength, but he’s an overachiever — a hard-working, intense player,” ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. said. “On the third day, someone grabbed him.”

Offers were also made elsewhere and hefty name, image and likeness offers were promised. Across the country, other players were eager to use their newfound freedom to cash in and, in at least some cases, find a home that would allow them to showcase their skills on a bigger stage.

The thing is, the draft ratings meant little to Armstrong, who shrugged off criticism of his athleticism or arm strength. He’s an Ohio guy and he said he likes to wear a chip on his shoulder. He had shown what he could do on the field — elusive in the pocket, a capable runner — and he had put together the NFL’s highlight reel of throws.

“The more you watch him, the more you like him,” Kiper said.

And Armstrong wasn’t too worried about the NIL money either. He had friends on that team and a quartet of receivers as talented and productive as any in the country. Why would he leave it?

But get down to it, and Armstrong’s decision was about nothing more than, “I wanted to do what I wanted to do,” Armstrong said.

“That’s how I go. People think it’s a tough task, but it’s really not. Every season is a tough task. If I was drafted in the real world without being drafted, it’s not easy. Yeah, technically it was trying to prove different things, but really it was just—it was what I wanted to do, so I did it. Impulsive, I guess.”

ARMSTRONG SAW VALUE in refining his skill set, playing in a more pro-style scheme, taking snaps under center, adjusting defenses and relying more on his running game. A year ago, Virginia’s offense just didn’t run through him. It essentially only ran because of him. Armstrong missed the entire game and was still responsible for the highest percentage of his team’s Power 5 players. But that was only enough for six wins, and so it was easy for Elliott to sell Armstrong on the idea that a more pedestrian number could equate to more wins later in the year.

“It’s all about finding opportunities to win, and that’s the only stat that matters,” Elliott said.

And then, in the second week, Virginia lost. It lost badly, 24-3, to Illinois in one of the dumbest offensive performances of Armstrong’s five-year Cavaliers career.

“I don’t think there was a single play when all 11 guys did what they had to do,” Armstrong said.

Last week, the offense showed marginal improvement against Old Dominion, but it got bogged down in the red zone and wasted scoring opportunities, and until Armstrong’s heroics at the end, the Hoos were staring at another frustrating loss.

When Virginia’s SB Nation site polled fans this week on who to blame for the offense’s slow start, only 2% pointed the finger at Armstrong. Almost half blamed the new coaching staff.

Armstrong considers this notion absurd. He said it was impossible to judge the new scheme until the players had implemented it properly. He blames himself for it. Mendenhall said he’s always been hard on himself, and that’s why he tries to keep the noise from fans and message boards at arm’s length.

“I don’t think about it,” Armstrong said. “It’s all the external stuff you can’t focus on or it breaks your whole team. It’s a dangerous world with those things. It’s easy to get lost.”

Armstrong is not wrong. He’s right where he wants to be, and it’s up to him to play well enough for the rest of the world to come around to his point of view.

“It’s not like we lost and got three points, it’s the end of a crazy world [against Illinois],” he said. “We just keep trying to get better.”

ARMSTRONG WON starting QB job as a freshman in high school, beating out a senior for the spot, but was hardly an overnight success story. That Shelby (Ohio) team opened the season 2-5, and Armstrong suffered through typical freshman struggles. In late October, Shelby hosted Columbian (Tiffin) and Armstrong was sharp. The problem was that his defense wasn’t helping. With six minutes left to play, Shelby trailed 75-54.

Then Armstrong took over.

Shelby scored three times in the final 5:48 to send the game into overtime. Armstrong threw five TD passes and had 520 yards of offense.

“It’s Brennan, though,” said her mother, Heather. “There’s a minute left, it’s not over. He’s going to fight until the end. That’s just him.”

And yet, Shelby still lost the game. Columbian went two and scored after scoring in overtime. Final score: 83-82. It was unofficially the highest scoring game in Ohio high school history.

Mendenhall has a similar story to Armstrong — the moment he knew his quarterback was special.

It’s 2018 and Armstrong was a true freshman. Starting QB Bryce Perkins suffered an injury midway through the first half against Georgia Tech as the Hoos trailed 13-7. Enter Armstrong, who drove 65 yards on six plays, hitting Joe Reed for a long touchdown to take the lead.

“I swear his heart rate was about 48,” Mendenhall recalled. “It was just so businesslike and after that score he looked at me like, ‘Well, what else did you expect?'”

However, Perkins came back on the next drive and the Yellow Jackets won the game 30-27 in overtime.

Look back at Armstrong’s career and the same story repeats itself over and over again. He’s good, but winning is a struggle.

Armstrong had the stats. He even set the school record for passing yards last season. But he had no victory. It ate him up.

That was the real reason he came back. Yes, he can improve his skills, prove he can pull off a pro-style crime, make a little money — “all that good stuff,” as he put it. But he wanted to win more than anything — win so much that his legacy in Virginia was set in stone. He didn’t want to be remembered as the poster boy for loyalty in an era of college football’s evanescence. He wanted to be remembered as the man who led Virginia to an all-time season.

There is still time to do this, he assured. It’s all in front of him – so there’s no time to look back.

“I still want to win 10 games,” Armstrong said. “There are nine left and I have to win eight of them. It’s going to be a hell of a battle. I know that for sure. But it’s something I wanted to do. And if it doesn’t happen, I know I gave this university everything I had, whatever that looks like.”