CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Brennan Armstrong is not one to sugarcoat a problem. It’s one of the things his former coach, Bronco Mendenhall, loves about him. Mendenhall used to hover over the offense during Virginia practices, close enough to hear every word that escaped his quarterback’s mouth, and if the unit struggled, the monologues often veered into the profane.
“He’d curse like a sailor,” Mendenhall said. “But it was authentic.”
It’s not surprising then that, nearly a month into his first season without Mendenhall helming 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 frustrated right now,” Armstrong said after Saturday’s 16-14 win over Old Dominion, in which he led the offense on a frenetic final drive to set up a game-winning field goal as time expired. “I’m so used to being that high-powered offense, and when I don’t feel it, and I don’t have it, it frustrates me.”
It didn’t have to be this way. Armstrong could’ve chosen another path, perhaps a far easier one. This is the era of name, image and likeness money and transfer portal freedom, and Armstrong had his share of suitors this offseason. Instead, he chose to stay put, pushed 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 genuine risk that his final season — the one that could make or break his NFL prospects — could devolve into a rebuilding season for the Cavaliers.
When Armstrong made the choice, he was lauded as a case study on loyalty in an era when that’s a rare commodity. It took just two games for even Virginia fans to wonder if loyalty was overrated.
A year after Armstrong blossomed into one of the most prolific QBs in the country, throwing for nearly 4,500 yards and accounting for 40 touchdowns — 31 through the air — in just 11 games, things in Charlottesville look bleak.
Through three games last season, Virginia’s offense had scored 124 points.
Through three games this year, the Hoos have tallied just 53, and Armstrong has just two passing TDs — both coming in the opener against FCS Richmond.
Now Armstrong is set to go head-to-head against the coaching staff that turned him into a star. The Cavaliers head to 3-0 Syracuse on Friday (7 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App) to take on an energetic offense led by former Virginia coordinator Robert Anae and QB coach Jason Beck.
Given the reunion, it might be a fitting time for Armstrong to take a step back and reassess his decision, to wonder what might have been. But the one thing the outspoken quarterback won’t say, no matter how thoroughly he is prodded in the run-up to his reunion with Anae & Co., is that he regrets anything.
“Yeah, I did stick it out through a coaching change and the NIL money you could possibly put in my pocket at a different school — all that good stuff,” Armstrong said. “You probably don’t see too many QBs sticking it out, but I’m happy with what I did.”
VIRGINIA ENDED ITS 2021 regular season with four straight losses, including a painful fourth-quarter flub against rival Virginia Tech. Afterward, Armstrong figured he was ready to move on, his sights set on the NFL draft.
Then Mendenhall announced he was stepping down.
Then Virginia’s bowl game was canceled.
Then the NFL evaluations came back, dinging Armstrong for myriad concerns, including the Air Raid system that he’d mastered but that didn’t tend to translate at the next level.
He was pegged as a late-round selection with upside.
“He doesn’t have wow-you-over arm strength, but he’s an overachiever — a gutty, gritty gamer,” ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. said. “On Day 3, somebody would grab him.”
There were offers elsewhere, too, and they came with promises of hefty name, image and likeness deals. Around the country, other players were eager to use their newfound freedom to cash in and, in at least a few cases, find a home that might allow them to showcase their skill set on a larger stage.
Thing is, draft evaluations meant little to Armstrong, who shrugged off critiques of his athleticism or arm strength. He’s an Ohio guy, and he said he likes carrying a chip on his shoulder. He’d shown what he could do on the field — elusive in the pocket, a capable runner — and he’d put together a highlight reel of NFL throws.
“The more you watch him, the more you like him,” Kiper said.
And Armstrong wasn’t too concerned with the NIL money either. He had friends on this team, and a quartet of receivers as talented and productive as any in the country. Why would he leave that?
Get right down to it though, and Armstrong’s decision wasn’t about any one thing other than this: “I wanted to do what I wanted to do,” Armstrong said.
“That’s kind of how I go. People think it’s a tough task, but it’s not really. Every season is a tough task. If I was drafted, undrafted, out in the real world — none of that is easy. Yeah, technically it was about trying to prove different things, but really, it was just — that’s what I wanted to do so I did it. Impulsive, I guess.”
ARMSTRONG SAW VALUE in refining his skill set by playing in a more pro style scheme, taking snaps under center, adjusting protections and relying more on his run game. A year ago, Virginia’s offense didn’t simply run through him. It essentially ran at all only because of him. Armstrong missed a full game and was still responsible for the highest percentage of his team’s yardage of any Power 5 player. But it was only good enough for six wins, and so it was easy for Elliott to sell Armstrong on the idea that a more pedestrian stat line could equate to more wins at year’s end.
“It’s all about finding ways to win, and that’s the only stat that matters,” Elliott said.
And then, in Week 2, Virginia lost. It lost ugly, 24-3 to Illinois, in one of the most listless offensive performances of Armstrong’s five-year career with the Cavaliers.
“I don’t think there was a single play when all 11 guys were doing what they were supposed to,” Armstrong said.
Last week, the offense showed marginal improvement against Old Dominion, but it bogged down in the red zone and wasted scoring chances, 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 as to who should shoulder the blame for the offense’s sluggish start, just 2% of respondents pointed the finger at Armstrong. Nearly half blamed the new coaching staff.
Armstrong finds that notion absurd. It’s impossible to judge the new scheme, he said, when the players haven’t executed it properly. He blames himself for that. He has always been hard on himself, Mendenhall said, and so he makes a point of keeping the noise from fans and message boards at arm’s length.
“I don’t think about it,” Armstrong said. “That’s all outside stuff you can’t focus on or it breaks down your entire team. It’s a dangerous world out there with that stuff. It’s easy to get lost.”
Armstrong isn’t lost. He’s right where he wants to be, and it’s his job to play well enough that the rest of the world comes around to his viewpoint.
“It’s not like it’s the end of the frickin’ world that we lost and put up three points [against Illinois],” he said. “Let’s just keep trying to get better.”
ARMSTRONG WON THE starting QB job as a freshman in high school, beating out a senior for the spot, but it was hardly an overnight success story. That Shelby (Ohio) team opened the season 2-5, and Armstrong suffered through the typical freshman struggles. In late October, Shelby hosted Columbian (Tiffin), and Armstrong was sharp. The problem was, his defense offered no help. With six minutes left in the game, Shelby trailed 75-54.
That’s when Armstrong took over.
Shelby scored three times in the final 5:48 to send the game to overtime. Armstrong threw five TD passes and accounted for 520 yards of offense.
“That’s Brennan though,” his mother, Heather, said. “There’s a minute left, it’s not over. He’s going to fight to the end. That’s just him.”
And yet, Shelby still lost the game. Columbian went for two after scoring in overtime and converted. Final score: 83-82. It was, unofficially, the highest scoring game in Ohio high school history.
Mendenhall has a similar story about Armstrong — about the moment he knew his quarterback was special.
It’s 2018, and Armstrong was a true freshman. Starting QB Bryce Perkins went down with an injury midway through the first half against Georgia Tech, with the Hoos trailing 13-7. Enter Armstrong, who drove the offense 65 yards on six plays, hitting Joe Reed for a long touchdown to take the lead.
“I would swear his pulse was about 48,” Mendenhall recalled. “It was just so matter of fact, and after that score, the look he gave me was like, ‘Well, what else did you expect?'”
Perkins returned to action on the next drive, however, and the Yellow Jackets won the game 30-27 in overtime.
Look back over Armstrong’s career, and the same story plays out repeatedly. He’s good, but the wins are a struggle.
Armstrong had the stats. He even set the school record for passing yards last season. But he didn’t have the wins. That ate away at him.
That’s the real reason he came back. Yes, he can refine his skill set, prove he can operate a pro style offense, earn some NIL cash — “all those good things,” as he said. But what he wanted, more than anything, was to win — to win so much that his legacy at Virginia was etched into stone. He didn’t want to be remembered as the poster boy for loyalty in an era of transience in college football. He wanted to be remembered as the guy who led Virginia to a season for the ages.
There’s still time to do it, he insisted. It’s all ahead of him — which is why there’s no time to look back.
“I still want to win 10 games,” Armstrong said. “There are nine left, and I’ve got to win eight of them. It’s going to be a hell of a battle. I know that for a fact. But that’s something I wanted to do. And if it doesn’t happen, I’ll know I gave this university everything I had, whatever that looks like.”