Friedlander: Brennan Armstrong's emotional return to Virginia was 'surreal,' only not for the obvious reasons
Brennan Armstrong was admittedly conflicted after leading NC State to a dramatic 24-21 victory against his former team, Virginia, in his much-anticipated homecoming at Scott Stadium.
Only not in the way you’d expect for someone lugging around as much emotional baggage as the Wolfpack’s transfer quarterback was Friday night.
The feelings were strong, to be sure, as he returned to Charlottesville and faced off against many of those he once called teammates. Former brothers with whom he mourned following the shooting deaths of three UVa players last November, prior to announcing his decision to leave.
But all that seemed like a blur when he was asked about it afterward.
FINAL | NC STATE 24, UVA 21
Cavaliers fall just short of the comeback bid in their ACC opener. It was Brennan Armstrong who survives pic.twitter.com/0a7w2m8VXs
— anne-parker coleman (@anneparkercole1) September 23, 2023
Other than it being “pretty surreal, pretty weird coming back, playing and being on the other side,” Armstrong was sketchy about the details leading up to his 1st game as a visiting player at the venue he called home for his 1st 5 college seasons.
That may have something to do with the fact that the end of the game was so much more memorable – and maybe even more surreal and weird in its own way – than the beginning.
“I don’t really remember how I was at the start. I’m just thinking about how the game finished,” he said after guiding the Wolfpack into position for the game-winning field goal as time expired. “I feel like I handled it well, I didn’t get too fired up. I got a little fired up at the end when we weren’t moving the ball. But other than that, I felt like I was okay.”
Armstrong was 15-of-30 passing for 180 yards, 2 touchdowns and an interception. He also had a team-leading 64 yards rushing, including 18 yards on 3 carries over the final 36 seconds to set up Brayden Narveson’s winning 33-yard field goal.
It wasn’t the best game he’s played at Scott Stadium.
Not even close.
As he mentioned, his offense left the door open for a UVa comeback by failing to take advantage of 2 opportunities provided by its defense to put the game away long before the final play.
But in the end, Armstrong did exactly what coach Dave Doeren brought him to NC State to do – be a poised, veteran leader who finds ways to will his team to victory, regardless of the stats or circumstances.
He had plenty of help in doing it on this occasion. Not all from his own team.
An unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on UVa quarterback Anthony Colandrea in celebration of a 2-point conversion that tied the game in the final minute and a clutch 35-yard kickoff return by Julian Gray allowed Armstrong to set up Narveson’s decisive kick without having to put the ball in the air.
That, however, wasn’t the only time he came through when the Wolfpack needed it most.
With the score tied at 7 and the Cavaliers gaining confidence heading into halftime, Armstrong produced a momentum-changing 8-play, 67-yard drive highlighted by a 30-yard completion to freshman Kevin Concepcion in a 3rd-and-long situation.
Four plays later, he found Concepcion again, this time in the end zone for a 14-yard score.
The 6th-year quarterback and the rookie receiver connected again late in the 3rd quarter, this time for a 48-yard score to answer a pair of field goals and that brought UVa back to within a point.
“He had a lot of energy, which you’d expect playing in this stadium,” Doeren said of his transfer quarterback. “He overthrew a few guys (early). But he settled in and started playing better.”
NC State coach Dave Doeren on the play of quarterback Brennan Armstrong in “homecoming” game: pic.twitter.com/Xst1BwAO7H
— TheWolfpackCentral (@NCStateRivals) September 23, 2023
Armstrong led the ACC in passing with 4,449 yards to go along with 31 touchdowns in 2021 on his way to becoming the most prolific left-handed passer in conference history.
While his performance dropped off considerably last year in his 1st season running the offense of new coach Tony Elliott, he left on good terms and continues to have strong, positive feelings toward the school at which he earned his undergraduate degree.
Nonetheless, his return to Charlottesville on Friday was met with more boos than nostalgic cheers as he trotted onto his former home turf for the 1st time since a loss to Pittsburgh last Nov. 12.
It was something of a misguided reaction from the UVa faithful. That’s because, in the long run, Armstrong did the Cavaliers a favor by transferring out of the program to play his final season of eligibility.
His decision to leave, along with an injury to incoming transfer Tony Muskett, has opened the door for true freshman Colandrea to play right away and get the kind of valuable experience that will help both him and the team into the future.
The talented youngster has already shown a strong arm, a knack for turning nothing into something and a confidence that rubs off on others.
He still has a lot to learn, as displayed by his 2 4th quarter interceptions and game-changing lack of judgment after the successful 2-point play. But he’ll be better prepared to lead – and win – as Elliott and his staff deepen the talent pool surrounding him.
It’s said that the best trades, no matter what the sport, are those that benefit both teams. Even though the circumstances that led Armstrong to NC State and Colandrea to UVa weren’t exactly a trade, the result is the same.
The Cavaliers have a chance to get their quarterback of the future into the lineup right away while the Wolfpack got the veteran leader they needed. Armstrong, meanwhile, has a chance at finishing his college career with an opportunity to win.
Even though on this occasion, he wasn’t fully appreciative of the desired result.
“I’m bad at taking wins when the offense doesn’t do their job, so I’ve got to be better than that,” he said. “But a win’s a win.”
Especially one with so much emotion attached.