"We're playing for pride! I've got a group of seniors that we have to send out the right way!" – @Coach_TElliott
— Virginia Cavaliers (@VirginiaSports) November 6, 2023
By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — The University of Virginia coaching staff works on Sundays during football season, but that’s usually a day off for players. Not this week.
Less than 24 hours after losing Saturday to Georgia Tech at Scott Stadium, the Cavaliers were back on the practice field. Virginia (2-7 overall, 1-4 ACC) plays at No. 11 Louisville (8-1, 5-1) on ESPN’s Thursday night showcase, and every hour of preparation is precious as kickoff approaches.
In a short week like this, what’s sacrificed “the most is the players’ recovery,” UVA head coach Tony Elliott said Monday afternoon, “because typically they’re off on Sunday, and then Monday is a lighter practice, and then they get back to banging on Tuesday. Where we had practice this morning and we’re already back in pads.”
Virginia lost three key players to injuries in the first half of the Georgia Tech game: quarterback Tony Muskett (ankle), tailback Mike Hollins (neck) and linebacker Kam Robinson (knee). Muskett and Robinson are questionable for Thursday, but Hollins should be available. Also, tight end Sackett Wood is expected back after missing two games with multiple injuries.
“So that’s a big positive for us,” Elliott said.
If Muskett isn’t available at Louisville’s L&N Federal Credit Union Stadium, true freshman Anthony Colandrea will take snaps for the Wahoos. In his five appearances this season, Colandrea has become known for his big plays, often the result of his improvisational skills, but also for some ill-advised decisions.
In Virginia’s 45-17 loss Saturday, Colandrea had two turnovers, the first of which was a fumble near midfield with the Yellow Jackets leading 10-7.
For the season, he’s completed 84 of 139 passes (60.4 percent) for 1,123 yards and seven touchdowns. He’s been intercepted seven times.
“He’s such a competitor,” Elliott said. “You could just see it in his body language [Saturday]. But you also have to be able to manage the game and understand that the margin for error at this level is very, very thin.
“You want to try and eliminate as many mistakes as you possibly can, because you might not be able to overcome them, whereas in the past, maybe in high school, [Colandrea was] able to kind of get himself out of trouble, make a play, and if he had a mistake then he was on a team that could kind of compensate. But at this level, you give away possessions or you make the wrong read, you don’t convert in critical situations, those could be the plays that impact the game the most.”
Even at full strength, the Hoos’ offense would be facing a daunting challenge Thursday night. In its past two games—one-sided victories over then-No. 20 Duke and Virginia Tech—Louisville has allowed three points.
“We have the perfect mix of a few veterans who have played football,” Cardinals head coach Jeff Brohm said, “but also a lot more guys who didn’t have experience yet and they’re hungry and out to prove themselves. You want that on your defense and on your team. A lot of these guys are trying to make a name for themselves and help their unit perform at a high level.”
Injuries have crushed UVA’s defense this season, and rotation players watching from the sideline Saturday in second half at Scott Stadium included Robinson, end Kam Butler, tackle Olasunkonmi Agunloye and safeties Antonio Clary and Lex Long. Even short-handed, the Cavaliers improved on defense through the first half of the season, but they regressed against the Yellow Jackets.
Georgia Tech reeled off big play after big play and finished with 514 yards. The Jackets have an explosive offense, but Virginia’s tackling was uncharacteristically poor.
“We just didn’t look like ourselves,” Elliott said. “We had been improving in tackling. We just didn’t get the ball carrier on the ground. I anticipate that this week these guys are going to accept the challenge. You’re going to have to put your pads on each running back in this run game to get them on the ground.”
UVA safety Tayvonn Kyle said he and his teammates need to make the most of their long afternoon at Scott Stadium.
“Each and every thing that you do, each and every play, whether it’s good or bad, you can learn from it,” Kyle said. “So being able to have those plays that we had Saturday, and being able to see, OK, we were just a hair off or we need this person in this gap or whatever the case may be, that just motivates us and keeps us encouraged to, one, understand that there’s still room for growth and, two, to lean on each other and help each other out.”
This is Brohm’s first season as head coach at his alma mater, and his team can clinch a spot in the ACC championship game with wins over UVA and Miami (Nov. 18). The Cavaliers have been eliminated from bowl contention, and their goals are most modest with three games to play.
Virginia hosts Duke on Nov. 18 and then closes against Virginia Tech at Scott Stadium on Nov. 25.
“The biggest thing is we’re playing for pride,” said Elliott, who’s in his second year at UVA. “I’ve got a group of seniors that we want to send out the right way. As a competitor, it doesn’t matter. It goes into competitive stamina. My message for the guys post-practice [Monday] is, we’ve got to decide. We’ve got three games left, and we want to decide that going forward this is what the standard is going to be. Even though we may not have accomplished our goals, at least we’re changing the mindset and setting the standard for what’s going to happen these next three weeks and then going into the future.”
The Hoos are drawing a measure of confidence from their Oct. 21 game in Chapel Hill, N.C., where they stunned then-No. 10 North Carolina 31-27 at Kenan Stadium.
“We’ve been here before,” Elliott said “So there shouldn’t be any pressure. You’ve done it before. It’s something that you’re capable of doing, so don’t put any more added pressure on yourself.
“We just need to focus on the short week, making sure that we do everything we can from a preparation standpoint to get ready to go play our best game, and that’s what we’re chasing.”
In their most recent visit to Louisville, in 2021, the Cavaliers erased a 17-point deficit in the second half and shocked the Cardinals 34-33. Tight end Grant Misch caught a 1-yard touchdown with 22 seconds left, and Brendan Farrell added the extra point to cap the epic comeback.
Victories have been harder to come by for this UVA team, but there’s “no quit in this program,” Misch said, “and I think the last few weeks here are going to show that.”
Misch, a sixth-year senior, said he’s well aware that his college career is in its final chapter. He and Wood noted as much during a conversation they had at practice Sunday.
“We were like, ‘Man, just take it in, just for a second,’ ” Misch said. “So that’s something that I’ve really been focusing on the last couple games and the last few going forward, just taking it all in, emptying the tank. I’m giving it all.”
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