— Virginia Cavaliers (@VirginiaSports) October 24, 2023
By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — During their weekly Monday morning meeting, University of Virginia head football coach Tony Elliott started by posing a question to his team’s leadership group: What now?
Less than 48 hours earlier, of course, UVA had beaten a team ranked in the top 10 by The Associated Press on the road for the first time in program history, knocking off then-No. 10 North Carolina 31-27 at Kenan Stadium. Would one memorable victory be enough for Virginia’s players?
“I wanted to hear their response [and] to see where their mindset is,” Elliott told reporters Tuesday afternoon at John Paul Jones Arena.
He liked what he heard. “Their response was: ‘We’ve got to go back to work. It’s Monday. It’s mindset Monday. We can’t be thinking about what happened on Saturday night.’ ”
The Cavaliers, who went into their bye week with a 1-5 record, kicked the second half of the regular season with a historic win, and since then they’ve received congratulatory messages from every direction. The challenge for them now, Elliott said, is to show they’re capable of handling success, and that will require collective sacrifice.
“If you want to continue on this road,” Elliott said, “you’ve got to pay the price … There’s nothing easy.”
Five regular-season games remain for Virginia (2-5 overall, 1-2 ACC), starting Saturday at 3:30 p.m. against Miami (5-2, 1-2) at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla. The Hurricanes are receiving votes in the latest AP poll, which has Louisville at No. 18 and Duke at No. 20.
Virginia, which hasn’t played at Scott Stadium since Oct. 7, hosts Georgia Tech there on Nov. 4. The Wahoos play at Louisville on Nov. 9—a Thursday night—and then come home to host Duke on Nov. 18. The Hoos close the regular season at home against arch-rival Virginia Tech.
“That’s the stretch that we have,” Elliott said, “and, really, it’s ACC football week in, week out. You’ve got to show up, and the only way you can show up is if you consistently have to respect the process and take it one day at a time, one snap at a time, one practice at a time.”
After losing their first five games this season, the Hoos’ second under Elliott, they broke through with a 27-13 win over William & Mary at Scott Stadium. That sent the Cavaliers into their bye week in high spirits, and the victory over UNC has further bolstered their confidence.
“When you start 0-5, you start maybe thinking, ‘Is what we’re doing working?’ ” quarterback Tony Muskett said after practice Tuesday. “But we kept our head down, we kept our belief, and we kept our faith in each other, and then these past two weeks these past two games, we’ve seen the victories come. It’s just reassuring to know that we’re on the right track and our work is coming to fruition.”
From the start, Muskett said, the Cavaliers have believed “that we can win every game we play. And so I think now that we’ve seen that we can do it, there is that extra bit of confidence. It’s just balancing that and making sure that we still come out with the same energy and same passion that we have been, so that we’re able to continue to get wins.”
Elliott said he believes his players “understand now the price you have to pay to be able to experience moments like [the win over UNC]. Today was a good practice, very, very similar to last Tuesday, and hopefully we’ll continue to have that energy and that focus, not just because of the previous result, but because of a gratitude and a gratefulness to be able to get to do what we do. One of the things I remind the guys is we get to do this. It’s not that we have to. We get to do this.”
Miami imploded in the final minute of its Oct. 7 game against Georgia Tech at Hard Rock Stadium and lost 23-20. A week later, the Hurricanes fell 41-31 to UNC in a game that was closer than the final score suggest. Virginia’s coaches are “trying to get our guys to make sure that they understand that this football team is a few plays away from being undefeated and being potentially a top-10 ranked team,” Elliott said. “And they’re a different team than the team we played last year.”
At Scott Stadium last season, Miami edged UVA 14-12 in four overtimes. The Canes went on to finish 5-7 in their first season under head coach Mario Cristobal.
“The biggest thing that I remember from last year was just [the Canes’] athleticism across the board,” Virginia safety Jonas Sanker said Tuesday.
Miami has lost none of that athleticism, especially on defense. Among FBS teams, the Hurricanes rank No. 7 in rushing defense (79.6 yards allowed per game) and 21st in total defense (313.6 yards per game).
“They’ve got some dudes,” UVA center Brian Stevens said Tuesday. “They’re athletic, they’re fast, they get after the football. But again, that’s every team. Everybody’s got some athletic dudes across the board: linebackers, whatever. They’re a good team and so are we.”
One of the keys to Virginia’s victory in Chapel Hill was its success running the ball. Tailbacks Perris Jones, Mike Hollins and Kobe Pace combined for 163 yards rushing, and Muskett added 66 on 12 carries.
“That’s another piece of it,” offensive coordinator Des Kitchings said Saturday night when asked about Muskett’s mobility. “You talk about defenses having defend a lot of things, and tonight his legs obviously helped us … [Muskett is] understanding that, yes, you’ve got to be a distributor of the football in the passing game, but also your legs are just as vital to us and making this offense go.”
The Cavaliers rushed for 228 yards against UNC, a season high, and that allowed them to dominate time of possession.
“We want to be a football team that’s balanced,” Elliott said. “We want to run the football. For us, when we can run the football, it opens up a lot of things on offense.”
For the run game to prosper, the offensive line must open holes, and that was an issue early in the season. Only once in the Cavaliers’ first five games did they riush for more than 95 yards. But Virginia’s senior-less line has slowly improved, and that’s been reflected in the rushing totals against William & Mary (221) and UNC (228).
“These guys have been working so hard,” offensive line coach Terry Heffernan said, “and it’s incredibly gratifying to see that work rewarded with that success.”
UVA’s passing game also clicked against UNC. The line provided solid protection for Muskett, giving the graduate transfer from Monmouth time to complete 20 of 30 passes for 208 yards and one touchdown. Malik Washington, a graduate transfer from Northwestern, caught 12 of those passes (for 115 yards), and scored the winning TD on his final reception.
Washington was recognized Monday as ACC Receiver of the Week, the second time he’s been so honored this season.
“He’s great,” Muskett said. “He’s my roommate. And so living with him, you can just see the way he handles himself. It’s not surprising to me at all. From the day we both came on campus here in [January], you could tell he had a focus about him, he had a demeanor about him that he’s gonna be a really good football player. So I’m not surprised. He’s doing what I expected, and I expect to continue to see him to go the next level and continue to climb.”
The ACC Linebacker of the Week is another Cavalier, junior James Jackson, whose interception with 26 seconds left sealed the upset in Chapel Hill. He’s one of the veterans on a defense that’s experienced more than its share of bad medical news this season.
Injuries to such players as Kam Butler, Josh Ahern and Antonio Clary have meant increased roles for several true freshmen, including linebacker Kam Robinson, end Mekhi Buchanan, cornerback Dre Walker and safety Caleb Hardy. They haven’t been perfect, but the early playing time is accelerating their development.
“You’re baptized by fire,” Elliott said. “You’ve got to go out there and learn the hard way … I think with all the young guys that are playing, they’re having to grow up fast.”
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