— Virginia Cavaliers (@VirginiaSports) September 12, 2023
By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — The Nike gear worn by student-athletes at the University of Virginia often carries motivational messages. Each UVA football player, for example, has a blue T-shirt with a single word emblazoned on the back: FINISH.
In its home opener, Virginia led James Madison by 11 points early in the fourth quarter and appeared poised to secure its first victory of the season. Once play resumed after a 73-minute weather delay, however, JMU was the team that finished. The Dukes rallied for two touchdowns in the final nine minutes and escaped Scott Stadium with a 36-35 win.
UVA head coach Tony Elliott has emphasized the importance of the fourth quarter countless times to his players this year, and he did so again in practice Tuesday morning.
The Cavaliers’ next game is fast approaching—they visit Maryland (2-0) on Friday night—and as the week goes on, Elliott told reporters Tuesday afternoon at John Paul Jones Arena, the dynamic is similar to “that transition from the third quarter to the fourth quarter, and then how do we operate later in practice? As you’re getting into the latter periods of practice, are you just trying to get through, or are you trying to increase your energy level?
“And so I was after them today pretty good about the intensity that we have to have as we go into the fourth quarter, because that’s when games are won or lost. And when I look back at [the JMU game], I didn’t do a good job of having them ready to come out after the delay to finish the fourth quarter. Credit to JMU, but a lot of it was we just didn’t make the plays when we needed to make the plays.”
On offense, defense and special teams, Virginia (0-2) had opportunities late in the game to put the Dukes away and failed to do so.
Defensive coordinator John Rudzinski’s main message to his group this week, nose tackle Jahmeer Carter said Tuesday, is that “we have to finish games. No matter what the situation is, when the defense is out there, we have to perform to a standard, regardless of who’s out there in the moment.”
Elliott said he told his team that “in my opinion there’s two ways that you win a game. Either you go win it, or the other team gives it to you … and that was an example of—again, not taking anything away from JMU—but we didn’t go win it. And that’s what we have to do.”
The Wahoos’ next opportunity to write a different ending will come Friday in a non-conference game to air at 7 p.m. on FS1. “We have not tasted victory this season,” Elliott said, “so there’s a lot of motivation for us as a football team.”
College Park, of course, is a town where UVA used to play football every other year, but this will be the programs’ first meeting since Maryland left the ACC and joined the Big Ten after the 2013-14 academic year.
UVA wide receiver Malachi Fields, who turned 20 last month, said he doesn’t remember when the Terrapins were members of the ACC. That’s not the case for Carter, who’s from Baltimore and whose father is a former intern on the strength and conditioning staff at Maryland.
“I always try to keep the same approach week in and week out, keep a level head, but it will be exciting to go back home to Maryland,” Carter said.
He’s attended games at the Terps’ SECU Stadium, and returning to College Park will “bring back a few memories,” Carter said, “but at the end of the day, I still have to play a game. So that’ll be the end goal.”
Elliott played at Clemson and later coached there for 11 years before coming to UVA after the 2021 season, so he’s familiar with Maryland football. So are two of Elliott’s assistants, Chris Slade (defensive ends) and Clint Sintim (linebackers), who faced the Terps annually during their playing careers at UVA. Secondary coach Curome Cox is a former Maryland standout.
The Terps “were always tough, always hard-nosed,” Elliott said. “Ton of respect for the program. They’ve had a ton of really, really good players come out of there. Watching them on film, they’re coached very well. They’re very deep on defense. They challenge you with their defensive structure overall, and they’ve got depth.”
Maryland also has, in fifth-year senior Taulia Tagavailoa, a talented, experienced quarterback who made the All-Big Ten second team in 2022.
“He’s a gamer,” Elliott said of Tagavailoa, who began his college career at Alabama. “He’s a competitor. He’s a sneaky good runner. He likes to stay in the pocket and keep his eyes downfield, but when he pulls it down, he can go and hurt you with his legs … We didn’t put much pressure on [JMU’s quarterback] last week, and that was something that I really challenged the defensive line [about]. We’ve got to put more pressure on the quarterback from all facets of our pass rush.”
The Terps have defeated Towson (38-6) and Charlotte (38-20) this season. The Cavaliers opened against SEC power Tennessee in Nashville, where they lost starting quarterback Tony Muskett to a shoulder injury early in the fourth quarter. Muskett was available for emergency duty Saturday against JMU but wasn’t needed, as true freshman Anthony Colandrea dazzled in his first college start.
Colandrea, who on Monday was named ACC Rookie of the Week, completed 20 of 26 passes for 377 yards and two touchdowns against JMU (2-0).
“Just seeing him go out there poised and confident in himself and able to run the offense like that definitely instills confidence in us,” said Fields, who caught eight passes for 74 yards.
Elliott said Colandrea, who enrolled at Virginia in January, “showed that the moment wasn’t too big for him, so that gives you confidence. He also showed that he’s grasping what we’re asking him to do for the most part … Now this week, obviously, he has to show the consistency to be able to take one game plan, flush it, and learn a new game plan within a week.”
Muskett’s shoulder injury has improved, Elliott said, “and I feel a lot better about the day-to-day decision coming up to game time. He’s back in full practice, where last week he was limited a little bit. He’s been able to do everything, make all the throws, go through the handoff progression, so I’m excited about his possibility for this weekend.”
That’s not the only good news on the medical front for the Hoos. Three regulars who missed the JMU game with injury—tight end Sackett Wood, linebacker Josh Ahern and safety Lex Long—are back at practice and are expected to play against Maryland, and defensive end Chico Bennett Jr. should be closer to full strength.
Safety Antonio Clary has been slow to recover from an ankle injury he suffered early in training camp, but overall “I feel like going into this game is probably the most healthy that we’ve been all year,” Elliott said, “having everybody back from last week with the exception of Clary being a day-to-day game-time decision.”
The Cavaliers went into their home opener looking to run the ball effectively on offense and stop the run on defense. They met neither goal. Virginia was held to 18 yards rushing (on 35 carries) and gave up 167 yards on the ground to JMU.
“I felt like defensively the run fits were better [than against Tennessee],” Elliott said, “but we’re still just not getting guys on the ground on first contact. We’re still having way too many missed tackles. Then the last two drives, we just weren’t very good against the run.
“Definitely that’s where it starts. I think you win football games up front by being able to establish the run and being able to stop the run. So we’ve got some work to do with our guys.”
The Hoos returned only one 2022 starter on the offensive line, center Ty Furnish, and that group has a new position coach, Terry Heffernan, and three transfers: Brian Stevens (Dayton), Ugonna Nnanna (Houston) and Jimmy Christ (Penn State).
“I’m hopeful that the guys that we have can put it together,” Elliott said. “Jimmy coming back off of injury gives us a little bit of depth. I thought Saturday was better than the previous Saturday, but there’s still not the consistency that we need, so we’ve got to make progress there.”
Nnanna made his second straight start at right tackle Saturday, but later gave way to Christ.
“I was excited to get in and get my playing time, knock some of the dust off,” said Christ, whose brother Tommy is a former Virginia player.
Two games in, the O-line remains an area of concern for UVA, but Heffernan has stayed positive, Christ said. “He knows that we have a lot of room to grow, but he knows that we can all do it. He’s not pointing fingers at anyone. He’s not blaming anyone. We’re in this together. Win or lose, we’re all in this together, and we can all improve.”
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