📅 Here is the schedule for Saturday:
9:45 a.m.: Wahoo Walk
10:30 a.m.: Gates open (first 35k fans get free UVA Strong T-Shirt)
11:45 a.m.: Pregame UVA Strong Tribute Ceremony begins
12:05 p.m.: Team Entrance
12:09 p.m.: Kickoff#UVAStrong https://t.co/L3nwDCNGCx
— Virginia Cavaliers (@VirginiaSports) September 7, 2023
By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Coming to the sideline after an 11-on-11 drill in practice, University of Virginia tailback Perris Jones encouraged his teammates to push through their discomfort.
It hasn’t been an easy week for the Cavaliers. They opened the season last Saturday with a one-sided loss to SEC power Tennessee in Nashville and came out of that game with several injuries. Adding to their discomfort, they practiced this week under an unforgiving sun in hot, humid conditions.
“I know it’s hard,” Jones told his teammates, “but it’s supposed to be hard.”
Memorial ceremonies Friday afternoon and Saturday morning are sure to evoke a flood of memories for the Wahoos, who lost three beloved players—Lavel Davis Jr., Devin Chandler and D’Sean Perry—in a Nov. 13 shooting on Grounds. Another challenge will follow for UVA: a Saturday afternoon clash with James Madison.
In a game to air on ESPNU, the Hoos host the Dukes (1-0) at noon at Scott Stadium. An FCS powerhouse for two decades, JMU posted an 8-3 record last season, its first as an FBS member.
“There’s gonna be some times when we’re focused on [the tributes to Davis, Chandler and Perry],” UVA linebacker Stevie Bracey said. “But I believe once the ball is kicked off, and the game starts, we gotta do what we gotta do. We gotta go out and win for them.”
The Dukes figure to pose a stern test for Virginia. The Cavaliers’ players might not have come into the week well-versed in JMU’s football tradition, but their coaches did, and the staff shared its knowledge at the team meeting Monday.
“So they’ve been educated,” Virginia head coach Tony Elliott said of his players. “That’s not trying to make it about JMU, because that should never be the case, but I do feel like I have a responsibility as their coach to prepare them for battle to know what they’re walking into or who their opponent is.”
The Dukes, Elliott said, are a “very well-coached and a very disciplined team. They have really, really good players.” Some of those players, Elliott added, “have a chip on their shoulder, probably, because they may not have been recruited by UVA.”
JMU opened the season with a 38-3 win over Bucknell, an FBS team that finished 3-8 in 2022. Virginia had a considerably tougher first test. The Volunteers, who are ranked ninth in the latest Associated Press poll, dominated the lines of scrimmage and won 49-13.
“They were an amazing team,” Bracey said Tuesday. “They had really big guys up front, and the biggest challenge as linebackers is getting off blocks.”
The Cavaliers will be better for the experience, however frustrating it might have been, Bracey believes. “We may see another O-line just like that, so it wouldn’t be new to have to get off those blocks from [linemen of that caliber].”
Virginia gave up 499 yards in the opener, falling far short of the standard the defense sets for itself.
“My best coach ever has been failure,” UVA defensive coordinator John Rudzinski said Wednesday. “Shoot, I think everybody wants to win, and that’s in every aspect of life. But [it’s important] to be able to take those failures, to look at and be introspective on how we can be better.”
UVA’s defense lost tackle Olasunkonmi Agunloye to a season-ending injury against Tennessee. Two other regulars on that side of the ball, linebacker Josh Ahern and safety Lex Long, left the game with injuries and are questionable for Saturday. Better news for Rudzinski: Two starters who missed the opener, end Chico Bennett Jr. and safety Antonio Clary, might be available against JMU.
With Ahern out, Bracey played extensively against Tennessee and led the Hoos with a career-best 10 tackles.
“I was confident going in because of the practice and preparation we had, watching Ahern and getting reps behind Ahern,” said Bracey, a sophomore from Atlanta. “Once he had to come out of the game, I was like, ‘All right, cool.’ …. We prepare for this, so it was kind of a next-man-up mentality. I went out there and did what I was coached to do. Obviously, it wasn’t perfect, because life’s not perfect.”
When the Cavaliers had the ball, they totaled only 201 yards, and they lost starting quarterback Tony Muskett early in the fourth quarter when he hurt his non-throwing shoulder. If Muskett isn’t available against JMU, true freshman Anthony Colandrea will start at quarterback.
Colandrea, who enrolled at UVA in January, was 2-for-7 passing for 12 yards against Tennessee, and he carried twice for 17 yards. No. 10 lacks experience, but his “confidence level is always high,” Elliott said. “He has a moxie about him. I think the challenge will be for us to make sure we put him in the best position to be successful … He’s got play-making ability. The biggest thing for us, if he is the one that runs out there first, is just making sure that we kind of keep him level-headed and calm and collected so that he can go do his job, which is to distribute [the football] and manage the system.”
Virginia’s offensive line has much to prove after a rough day in Nashville. Among the issues were multiple low snaps from center Ty Furnish.
“It’s correctable,” offensive coordinator Des Kitchings said. “It’s got to be correctable, because can’t operate as an offense being in the shotgun with [poor] snaps. They cost us in some critical times … First down, second down, it showed up and it’s got to be eliminated, and Ty has done a good job with that this week.”
Kitchings also expects right tackle Ugonna Nnanna to play better Saturday. Nnanna began training camp last month at his natural position of guard, but was pressed into service at tackle after injuries to several teammates.
“What I told Ugonna after the [Tennessee] game,” Kitchings said, “what I told him Monday morning, is, ‘Hey, buddy, you belong. Believe that you can do it, because you did it. Yes, you got beat. That happens. But don’t get discouraged, because you won battles out there on that field Saturday as well.’ He’s a very prideful kid. He wants to do it right. It means something to him, and I love that about him.”
The size and speed of the Vols’ defensive linemen overwhelmed UVA’s offensive line early, Kitchings said, and “then our guys settled in and blocked them better in the run game and the pass game.”
Among the offensive players whose roles are likely to grow is wide receiver Suderian Harrison, a true freshman who, like Davis, starred at Woodland High School in South Carolina. Harrison had one catch for 11 yards against Tennessee.
“I would say it was pretty exciting,” Harrison said. “A little nerve-wracking at first, going in and playing an SEC team, a top SEC team. Before we got there I just took it all in and thought, ‘Wow, this is really what college football is all about.’ ”
Harrison has taken the jersey number, 1, that Davis wore at UVA. “Once I came up here on my official visit, I told them I wanted to wear that,” Harrison said.
At Woodland High, the 5-foot, 172-pound Harrison played quarterback, and “he has a command and a presence about him,” Elliott said. “He draws other players to him, even the older guys … He has the ability to make plays. And the moments have not appeared to be too big for him.”
The Tennessee game was not the start Virginia’s offense envisioned for itself, but Kitchings remains confident his group will grow into a productive unit.
“We all believe in that, and it’s going to come,” he said, then smiled. “I’d like it to come on Saturday at Scott Stadium.”
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