The first half of the Virginia Cavaliers’ 2023 football season is in the books and, with the second half kicking off this Saturday, it seemed like the right time to put out some thoughts on the first six games of Tony Elliott’s second year at the helm. The 1-5 start has been far from ideal. But there have been signs of development and positive performances despite the struggles which suggest there’s a possibility for a successful back half of the season.
Virginia has two ACC-caliber quarterbacks
Probably the most positive development through the first half of the 2023 season has been the play of Tony Muskett and Anthony Colandrea. Neither has necessarily been other-worldly, but their combined performances have been better than UVA’s 1-5 record suggest and project well for the future of the program.
Virginia hit on Muskett in the transfer portal. He’s the veteran presence at quarterback that the team needed with the arm strength and persona to take the job. The Monmouth transfer has also proven to be no slouch as a runner, repeatedly putting his body on the line. For him and Colandrea, there’s room for improvement in the ball security department. But otherwise both have been really good in the pocket.
Colandrea, of course, is the prince that was promised for this program. He’s probably the best true freshman quarterback this program has ever had, and he’s staked his claim as its future. As long as he’s patient and is happy to sit behind Muskett for at least this season — which by all accounts he is — then UVA is set up extremely well at the quarterback position for the foreseeable future.
The team might be 1-5 and 4-12 overall with its current coaching staff, but the talent in the quarterback room projects that there is potential for improvement.
It’s hard to win when you’re weak in the trenches
Not exactly next generation analysis here, but it’s mighty difficult to win games when you can’t control the line of scrimmage on either side of the ball.
Purely in the running game, UVA’s offense is 112th in the nation in rushing success rate, Game on Paper. On defense? The ‘Hoos are 118th in success rate. Want to filter in the explosive plays? Virginia is 120th in EPA/play in the running game on offense and 113th on defense. That’s losing football plain and simple.
The defensive line does get a little bit more of a pass here. Season ending injuries to Kam Butler and Su Agunloye have hurt the group’s production, and additional injuries to Chico Bennett, Ben Smiley, and others have limited the pass rush and the rush defense in nearly every game this season.
That said, there’s also been a pure lack of production, especially in the pass rush. UVA has recorded nine sacks in six games. Two of those came from linebackers sent on blitzes, and four of the seven came from defensive lineman who are now out for the season. Considering that the competition only ramps up from here on out, that’s a pretty bleak reality for a Virginia defense that is so banged up in the secondary as well.
Offensively it’s a matter of trying to just limit the damage. But UVA’s relative success through the air (59th in success rate, 64th in EPA/play) has come despite the offensive line, not because of it. Of 133 teams, Virginia is the 10th worst in pass blocking per PFF. In the running game, it’s slightly better at 36th worst.
There have been injury issues on the offensive line as well. Right tackle Jimmy Christ was in and out of the lineup for a while, forcing Ugonna Nnanna to play out of position at tackle instead of at guard. The move to put Brian Stevens at center instead of Ty Furnish has been a successful one, and there have been moments of solid line play. But there have also been games where the ‘Hoos could not string together successful offense because their line couldn’t protect the quarterback.
Obviously this doesn’t project well for the remainder of the season when the level of competition only ramps up with three matchups against ranked opponents and no easy wins against ACC competition.
Defensive injuries have exposed a lack of depth
If there’s one thing Virginia’s defense has been in 2023, it’s unlucky. Lex Long, Kam Butler, Antonio Clary, Dre Walker, Chico Bennett, Malcolm Greene, and Su Agunloye are all key pieces of the defense who are either out for the season or who have missed significant time. Even more guys have missed games here and there which has contributed to what was thought to be the strength of the roster coming into the season being far from it through six games.
With that in mind it’s hard to evaluate John Rudzinski’s defense in year two. There have been flashes of last year’s group and the performance against William & Mary before the bye was encouraging. But while there was and is still some talent among the Wahoos’ defensive starters, a second half turnaround will have to be sparked by young reserves.
Complete performances keep eluding the Cavaliers
There is talent on this football team. That’s fairly obvious. The aforementioned Muskett and Colandrea have been good, and other players including Malik Washington, Malachi Fields, Kam Robinson, James Jackson, Perris Jones, Kobe Pace, Coen King, and even Brian Stevens have been quality performers for the Wahoos. This team just hasn’t been able to string together consistent 60-minute performances.
In some brutal fashion or another, Virginia has lost a number of games that they should’ve won this season. The three defeats in particular to James Madison (by one), NC State (by three), and Boston College (by three) were especially tough to swallow, and unfortunately signaled that despite the talent this program is still lacking the ability to clean up the small things and find ways to win.
The victory over William & Mary a week and a half ago was a step in the right direction. But even then, first half errors kept the Tribe in that contest for far longer than they should’ve been with how much UVA dominated on a play-to-play basis.
It’s time to start winning
With that all said, there need to be some wins down the stretch here. It’s hard to say that given the increase in the level of competition alongside the flaws this roster has and the injuries it’s dealing with. But for fans to stay engaged and for there to still be juice around this program — especially on the recruiting trail where Elliott and his staff haven’t been notably successful — then this team needs to pick up at least a couple Ws.
Playing North Carolina, Miami, Louisville, Duke, Georgia Tech, and Virginia Tech is no easy slate. But both Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech are beatable, Miami is crumbling, and there’s a world where the Cavaliers steal a game against one of their top-25 opponents.
71% of UVA fans agree that two or three wins would be enough in the final six games for them to consider the second half of the season a success (36% say three wins, 35% say two). If Elliott and company can beat the two Techs — which is a big if — and find another win somewhere else, then a 4-8 season doesn’t look so bad especially with the cards this team and this program have been dealt.
It’s a dog eat dog world out there and the current status of the program is very much up in the air. But simply finding a way to string together a couple victories could be a turning point. The ability is there. Now it’s about the execution from a playing and coaching perspective.