The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Architects of Virginia’s record-setting offense have Syracuse rolling

The Cavaliers take on the Orange at 7 p.m. Friday (ESPN)

Quarterback Brennan Armstrong and the Virginia offense has struggled through the first three games of the season. (Mike Kropf/Daily Progress/AP)

Virginia quarterback Brennan Armstrong led one of the most prolific offenses in college football last season. Tallying over 6,000 total yards and finishing second in the nation in passing yards per game, Armstrong appeared primed to build on his record-breaking success. But so far this season, Virginia’s offense has yet to regain its explosive nature.

As the Virginia offense has searched for cohesion in the early going, the departure of offensive coordinator Robert Anae and quarterbacks coach Jason Beck continues to loom large. Heading into Friday night’s game against host Syracuse, their absence could be magnified as they now sport a new shade of orange and blue on the opposing sideline, both coaching in the same roles they had with the Cavaliers.

“It’s an emotional game when you got your old family and you’re in front of them again,” Syracuse Coach Dino Babers said Monday. “I’m sure that there’ll be some hugs and hellos, either before or after the game — either way doesn’t bother me. The game is the game.”

During their time in Charlottesville, Anae and Beck helped engineer some of the best offenses in the program’s history. Only two Virginia quarterbacks have thrown more than 20 touchdown passes in multiple seasons, with all four of those seasons coming during the duo’s tenure.

Virginia rallies in final minute to beat Old Dominion

This success reached its pinnacle in 2021. Armstrong set new marks in Virginia history for passing yards, passing touchdowns, completions and total offense in a season. He also set several Virginia single-game records, including tallying the top three marks for passing yards and the record for total offense.

“Coach Beck has been great for me,” Armstrong said at ACC media day in July. “I wouldn't be in the position I am without him there and the staff that was there.”

Following its record-breaking offensive campaign, Virginia’s offense has fallen back to earth. The Cavaliers (2-1) are averaging 17.7 points and 413.3 total yards and have scored six touchdowns in three games. In 2021, the Cavaliers averaged 34.6 points and 515.8 yards with 52 touchdowns.

While Virginia’s offense has struggled overall, its passing game has specifically regressed. Following a late victory against Old Dominion, Armstrong has amassed 710 passing yards, two touchdown passes and three interceptions while completing 52.9 percent of his passes. In the first three games of last season, Armstrong tallied 1,298 passing yards, 11 touchdowns and two interceptions while completing 71.9 percent of his passes.

“He’s trying to make every single play for us because [he] had that freedom last year in the system, and he was confident. Again, he’s a playmaker, whereas here I want him to play within the system and make the required play,” Virginia Coach Tony Elliott said Tuesday. “You could still be Brennan in the pocket and make that throw, having the confidence to still believe that you can make every throw, but just do it within the framework of the other system.”

Contrarily, Syracuse’s offense has taken off with Anae and Beck. The Orange (3-0) is averaging 37 points and 408.3 yards of offense and is converting 42.9 percent of its third-down opportunities. That’s up from 2021, when the team averaged 24.9 points to go with 366.5 yards and a 32.9 percent third-down conversion rate.

Last season, Syracuse averaged 153 passing yards and found the end zone 10 times through the air, with Garrett Shrader playing a majority of the quarterback snaps. This year, the Orange is averaging 245.3 passing yards and already has eight passing touchdowns.

Shrader has seen a major jump in production, tallying 709 passing yards, eight touchdown passes and a completion percentage of 66.2 percent after three games. Last season, he had 1,445 yards, nine touchdowns and a 52.6 percent completion rate in 12 games.

“[Beck] has a very calming effect. Shrader’s a little high-strung. Beck can get after you, but that’s not how he’s wired. He’s a little bit different,” Babers said of Beck’s impact on the junior quarterback. “They’re a good fit. They make a good couple.”

Syracuse has shown progression and explosiveness as it grows into its new offense. Meanwhile, Virginia’s new offense has generated 19 points in its past two games combined. Though there is still time to settle in, the Cavaliers will have to find their stride quickly to compete with the familiar, strong Syracuse offense led by Anae and Beck.