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Meet Virginia, which is still figuring a whole lot out

Tony Elliott’s program is struggling for signs of progress.

NCAA Football: Virginia at Maryland Reggie Hildred-USA TODAY Sports

Watching other coaches around the league struggle to get rebuilds off the ground definitely helps you appreciate how quickly Dave Doeren got NC State back to respectability. By his second season, he had Jacoby Brissett ready to step in at quarterback, and that year started a run of five consecutive bowl seasons.

Tony Elliott has had no such luck at Virginia, though of course finding the right quarterback is a huge part of climbing back out of the void, and there the Wahoos are still searching. Monmouth transfer Tony Muskett won the job out of camp but injured his non-throwing shoulder in the opener against Tennessee and has not played since. That forced UVA to turn to freshman Anthony Colandrea, who has flashed at times but also has looked like a freshman.

Muskett may be healthy enough to return Friday night, which is something to watch. He made 23 starts at Monmouth, throwing for over 5,600 yards on 65% completions with 51 touchdowns and 16 INTs. While we still don’t know how good he can be at the major-conference level, he’d likely provide a boost to that offense. Colandrea is averaging an impressive 9.1 yards per attempt, but has thrown four picks already.

The passing game relies heavily on veteran receivers Malachi Fields and Malik Washington, who account for 37 of the team’s 54 receptions (68.5%) and 496 of its 746 receiving yards (66.5%). No other receiver has more than four receptions.

Virginia’s offense has been a struggle because its ground game has been totally absent, leaving all the pressure to the passing game to move the ball. The Cavs are averaging a meager 1.9 yards per carry this season and have yet to crack 100 yards in a game. They’ve been running by committee with Perris Jones, Kobe Pace, and Mike Hollins; of those three, Pace has the best per-carry average at 3.7.

Defensively, the Cavaliers have been hampered by injuries to key players. Defensive lineman Chico Bennett, who had seven sacks in 2022, didn’t play against Tennessee and was limited the next week against James Madison, but is progressing.

On the back end, they’re missing safeties Langston Long (44 tackles in 2022) and Antonio Clary (56); Clary hasn’t played a game this season.

The pass defense is feeling the strain, as opposing quarterbacks have completed 66% of their throws while averaging 8.2 yards per attempt. Virginia only picked off five passes a year ago and has none through three games in 2023.

It’d help if the defense were a bit more disruptive up front, no doubt: UVA ranks near the bottom of FBS in tackles for loss, while opponents are averaging 4.9 yards per carry. Tennessee racked up 287 rushing yards in the opener, and the Cavs already have surrendered 11 rushing scores.

It’s no wonder they’re giving up 42 points per game—the struggle to produce disruptive plays and otherwise get opponents off track shows up in plenty of damaging ways. Opponents have converted 45% of third downs and have 14 touchdowns on 16 red zone trips. Not much has gone right.

If the Cavs are going to pull the upset Friday night, that defense is going to have to play a whole lot better than it has, while Fields and Washington are going to need to produce big performances at receiver. I’m not foolish enough to expect State to have any easy time, but if it does prove to be a straightforward win, it’s not tough to guess why that’ll be.