The Cavaliers (1-2), who face Wake Forest (1-2) at 4 p.m. Saturday in Winston-Salem, N.C., have been outscored 34-0 during the first quarter. They fell behind 14-0 in the first quarter of their most recent loss, a 38-21 defeat to visiting North Carolina State last Saturday.
“That’s atypical for teams I’ve coached, but we’re winning the second and fourth quarters,” Mendenhall said. “And so what’s happening, for whatever reason — and we started to address it last week in practice — that was kind of a theory, but it kept going — is we’re playing with more urgency and more focus once we’re behind. It can’t take us to be behind to play with that urgency and focus. Certainly we’re demonstrating the capability because we’re doing so in the second and fourth quarters. The biggest discrepancy is in quarter one.”
Mendenhall suggested the transition to a new quarterback might be partly to blame for the first-quarter scoring issues. Brennan Armstrong, a left-handed sophomore, started the first three games after taking over for the record-setting Bryce Perkins, who’s now on the Los Angeles Rams’ practice squad.
Last week, Armstrong (6 for 9, 57 yards, two interceptions) exited in the second quarter with a concussion. He is uncertain to face Wake Forest, leaving Lindell Stone to work with the first team in practice this week.
Mendenhall deemed Armstrong day-to-day while in the concussion protocol. He said he expects senior safety Joey Blount and junior wide receiver/kick returner Tavares Kelly Jr., both hurt against North Carolina State, to play Saturday.
Stone, a junior, completed 30 of 54 passes for 240 yards and three touchdowns, all career highs, in just his fifth appearance with the Cavaliers and the first that did not begin in the fourth quarter. He also threw an interception that was returned 18 yards for a touchdown.
“Lindell did not have many practice reps at all with our offense,” Mendenhall said. “He was really working with our defense and helping us in that regard, and just that he came in and was effective and moved the football team, I was encouraged by that.”
It’s unclear how much Virginia’s game plan will change with Stone directing the offense. At 6-foot and 240 pounds, he’s better suited to be a drop-back passer, Mendenhall said, compared with Armstrong, who has run well at times.
The Cavaliers threw 64 times against North Carolina State, by far their most attempts this season, but Mendenhall attributed that in part to trying to erase an early 24-0 deficit.
“A lot of what we saw of Lindell was situational,” offensive coordinator Robert Anae said. “Now that he’s our starting quarterback, we also believe there are things he does well, so we want to start there. We also believe there are things we can do running the football.”
The Cavaliers had permitted touchdown drives of 50 and 58 yards by the time Stone entered in relief of Armstrong, who took a blow to the helmet from Wolfpack safety Tanner Ingle while sliding at the end of a run. Officials ejected Ingle for targeting.
Scoring first has been a point of emphasis this week for Virginia, but it takes on additional importance given how that statistic has influenced its series with Wake Forest, which dates from 1889. Since 1982, spanning 26 matchups, the winner has scored first 19 times. The Cavaliers won 16 of those 19 games and have scored on their first possession 10 times against Wake Forest since 1987. Virginia won the first nine of those games.
Virginia has lost three straight in the series, most recently in 2016, a 27-20 road defeat in the only game Mendenhall has coached against the Demon Deacons. The streak matches Wake Forest’s record for consecutive wins against the Cavaliers.
“That’s definitely something we’re working on,” junior left tackle Ryan Nelson said. “And we’ll probably make changes in our practice and have a better emphasis on starting fast during practice. Sometimes things happen in games, and we just have to adapt faster to it, and we’ll definitely do better.”