— Virginia Football (@UVAFootball) November 22, 2023
By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Much has changed in the University of Virginia football program since the final game of its 2021 season, and many of the players and coaches who’ll be wearing blue and orange Saturday at Scott Stadium were elsewhere that fall.
Head coach Tony Elliott was on Dabo Swinney’s staff at Clemson in 2021. Offensive coordinator Des Kitchings was coaching the Atlanta Falcons’ running backs, and defensive coordinator John Rudzinski held the same position at Air Force.
Linebacker Kam Robinson, defensive end Mekhi Buchanan, wide receiver Suderian Harrison, cornerback Dre Walker and safety Caleb Hardy were high school juniors. Wideout Malik Washington was at Northwestern, center Brian Stevens at Dayton, tailback Kobe Pace at Clemson, and defensive end Paul Akere at Columbia. Cornerbacks Tayvonn Kyle, Sam Westfall and Malcolm Greene were at Iowa State, SMU and Clemson, respectively.
Those individuals, and many others in the program, are about to get their official introduction to an intense rivalry that divides many fans in this state. At 3:30 p.m. Saturday, UVA (3-8 overall, 2-5 ACC) closes the season against Virginia Tech (5-6, 4-3), with the Commonwealth Cup going to the winner.
The longtime foes were scheduled to meet last November in Blacksburg, but the game was canceled after the shooting that took the lives of three UVA players. Both teams have had uneven seasons this fall, but one of them will be celebrating around 7 p.m. Saturday at the end of a game with major implications for recruiting.
“Now we get a chance to settle it on the field,” Elliott said. “I think that’s important for each program, but then also it’s an opportunity for all of the recruits from the state of Virginia to see both teams showcased.”
Elliott is in his second year with the Wahoos, and Brent Pry is in his second year as the Hokies’ head coach. Elliott is thankful for the outpouring of support UVA received from Pry and Virginia Tech in the wake of the tragedy on Grounds, but that won’t make Saturday’s game any less competitive.
The Hoos have been locked in at practice this week, junior safety Jonas Sanker said. “There’s no rest. Everyone’s giving it all they have for these last few days. We understand what’s at stake.”
The Cavaliers want to play well every time they take the field, but Elliott acknowledged “the significance around this game.”
In 2019, UVA defeated Tech 39-30 at Scott Stadium, ending a 15-game losing streak in the series. The Hokies reclaimed the Commonwealth Cup in 2020 with a victory at Lane Stadium and then edged the Cavaliers 29-24 at Scott Stadium in 2021.
Not everyone in the UVA program, of course, is new to the rivalry. Nine players are still on the roster from the 2019 team: tight end Grant Misch, defensive tackle Aaron Faumui, tailbacks Perris Jones and Mike Hollins, defensive back Coen King, defensive end Ben Smiley, linebacker Josh Ahern, safety Antonio Clary and quarterback Jared Rayman.
Misch was a redshirt freshman in 2019, and he still has vivid memories of the Hoos’ win over the Hokies that season.
“Those photos of that game are pretty legendary,” Misch said Tuesday in the George Welsh Indoor Practice Facility. “It was a pretty incredible experience. It was a big moment for the whole UVA community.”
This is Misch’s sixth season at UVA, and his college football journey ends Saturday. “I’m enjoying every moment,” he said. “I was walking out here earlier, and I was like, “Man, it’s probably the last time I practice in this indoor [facility]. So I’m just appreciating it and taking joy in the small things.”
Sanker, who leads the team in tackles, played against Tech as a true freshman in 2021. His advice to teammates who are new to this rivalry?
“I keep it simple,” said Sanker, who graduated from The Covenant School in Charlottesville. “I just tell them it’s gonna come down to what we do, how prepared we come, and how much we’re willing to give for the guys beside us. So that’s what I, personally, have tried to emphasize, because I feel like a lot of times when guys get too worried about the external stuff, it just distracts you and you get overly nervous.”
Virginia, which defeated Duke at Scott Stadium last weekend, is looking to end a season with back-to-back wins for the first time since 2003. The Hokies, who finished 3-8 last season, are coming off a 35-28 loss to NC State, and they must win Saturday to become bowl-eligible.
Tech’s offense features two powerful runners: tailback Bhaysul Tuten and quarterback Kyron Drones. Tuten, a transfer from North Carolina A&T, has rushed for 610 yards and seven touchdowns this season. Drones, a 6-foot-2, 234-pound redshirt sophomore, has run for 592 yards and four TDs. He’s also passed for 1,750 yards and 12 TDs, with only three interceptions.
“He’s got a big arm, and they do a great job as far as running the quarterback,” Rudzinski said. “They’ve got a bunch of diverse schemes, and they’re going to do it. In a rivalry game like this, you don’t know if you’ll get that quarterback 15 times or 55 times. But at the same time, he can beat you with his arm. He’s got a big arm and he poses a lot of challenges.”
UVA defensive end Chico Bennett Jr. said: “Drones is a big boy. You gotta put a body on him, that’s for sure. You can’t go out there with a one-arm tackle. You gotta put a body on him and make sure you wrap up.”
Virginia’s defense is an unusual blend of true freshmen (Robinson, Walker, Buchanan, Hardy) and veterans like Bennett, Faumui, Sanker, Ahern, Akere, Westfall, Kyle, linebacker James Jackson and defensive tackle Jahmeer Carter. Ahern has been playing with a broken bone in his hand, and he’s inspired his teammates and coaches with his willingness to play with pain.
“One of the toughest kids I’ve ever been around,” Elliott said.
Rudzinski said: “It’s a great example of what we can persevere through and what we’re willing to do [when playing for] something bigger than ourselves.”
Ahern is one of many Cavaliers who are “playing through injury, through pain, because they love their teammates and they want to see this program do well,” Elliott said. “They want to be part of laying the foundation.”
In celebration of Virginia Legends, Thomas Jones and Rondé Barber, fans at Saturday’s game will receive a special rally towel!
— Virginia Cavaliers (@VirginiaSports) November 24, 2023
Injuries have battered UVA’s defense, and “a bunch of young guys have had to emerge.” Rudzinski said. “It’s been awesome to see a bunch of really good young freshmen pick up the scheme and then be able to give us great productive snaps.”
On offense, the Cavaliers have stayed healthier, but they lost Jones to a season-ending spinal injury on Nov. 9, and quarterback Tony Muskett, who won the starting job in training camp, has twice been sidelined by injuries.
Muskett, a transfer from Monmouth, hurt his non-throwing shoulder in the Sept. 2 season opener against Tennessee and then sprained an ankle Nov. 4 against Georgia Tech. He missed nearly six complete games this season.
In Muskett’s absence, true freshman Anthony Colandrea has sparkled more often than not. Against Duke, Colandrea completed 21 of 30 passes for 278 yards and three touchdowns, with no interceptions, and he ran nine times for 66 yards.
“He’s special,” Stevens said. “He’s a gamer.”
Washington, who’s had a record-setting season at receiver, told reporters after the Duke game that it was time to stop referring to Colandrea as a freshman. “I’d probably have to say the same,” Stevens said, “because he’s grown up fast.”
Virginia will be facing a Tech defense that’s recorded 32 sacks this season. The Hokies are allowing an average of only 166.5 passing yards per game, the seventh-fewest of any FBS team.
“They do a good job of playing man coverage,” Kitchings said. “Their DBs are really good fundamentally in their press coverage, so they take away a lot of free-access throws. We’ve faced man coverage before. We have to win at the line of scrimmage and then obviously win down the field.”
Kitchings is well aware of the Hokies’ strengths, but the Cavaliers’ focus this week has been “just us, UVA,” he said.
“We made strides last week, particularly offensively, not turning over the football, and we were able to run the football and create some explosive plays. So let’s try to improve on that. We’re really chasing our best game of the season as a team and as an offense. It so happens [that Tech is] the opponent this week, but it’s really about bettering ourselves.”
To receive Jeff White’s articles by email, click the appropriate box in this link to subscribe.