The Virginia Cavaliers beat the #10 North Carolina Tar Heels 31-27 on Saturday night, notching the program’s first road win against a top-10 team in the AP poll. Alongside our five takeaways from the result, we’ve put together our winners, losers, and I don’t knows from the redemptive victory for the Wahoos.
For time’s sake I didn’t include everybody. I probably could’ve. Head to the comments with anybody I snubbed. They’re all winners after that performance.
The future looked bleak. If there were Virginia fans who remained 100% committed to the future of this program under Elliott heading into the weekend, I’d love to see the receipts. Because I surely didn’t have a high degree of confidence in him and his staff to turn things around.
Yet here we are. This one game doesn’t prove that Elliott and his staff will build UVA back up to the highest heights of Bronco Mendenhall’s tenure or of decades ago. But this victory sure does instill a boatload of energy, confidence, and excitement in everyone who is in some way invested in the Virginia football program.
This win is most significant for Elliott. After leading this program through a tragedy, he’s been searching for the on-field results that reflect the tremendous effort that he and his staff have put into supporting their players since then. Now they’ve got it. He has the result to stamp his name next to as confirmation of what he’s built in a season and a half. At the very least, he’s won himself more time to continue building with the support of the UVA fanbase that has been hungry for a big win.
From getting shredded against Tennessee in his debut for the Cavaliers to being overshadowed by true freshman Anthony Colandrea while he recovered from a shoulder injury, Tony Muskett has now truly established himself as UVA’s QB1, presumably until his eligibility runs out after the 2024 season.
Muskett threw for 208 yards on 30 attempts and ran for another 72 yards (not including the negative yards from true sacks) on 11 rushes. He was aggressive through the air and on the ground with his interception in the endzone the one true blemish on an otherwise stellar performance for the Monmouth transfer.
Bottom line, Muskett went toe-to-toe with Drake Maye in Chapel Hill and came out with a win. That’s big boy quarterbacking right there. And that makes him an unquestionable winner from Saturday’s result.
I’ve run out of words to describe how impressive a human being Mike Hollins is, so I’ll just say this. Mike Hollins is an absolute stud. He’s a hero. He’s a champion. He’s an inspiration. And he continued to inspire on Saturday with three (3!!!!!) touchdowns along with 15 carries for 66 yards (4.4 average, 53% success rate). He got unlucky with the fumble that went out the back of the endzone, but nobody cares about that now. Hollins is this team’s heart and soul, and he continued to prove his on-field reliability against the Tar Heels.
Elliott deserves credit here as well, but the adjustments that UVA’s offensive coaching staff has made since the loss to Boston College have been meaningful, especially on fourth downs. A gorgeous 4th-and-2 conversion on Virginia’s first drive of the game set them up to go up 7-0, and another quarterback sneak/tush push/brotherly shove from Grady Brosterhous on 4th-and-1 in UNC territory set the Cavaliers up for their second touchdown on their third drive of the game.
Virginia converted an early 4th and 3 running one of my favorite plays ever: IZ RPO H-Split Arrow. Phenomenal play call by Des Kitchings to take advantage of an aggressive run pursuit and an even better execution by TGP to sell the run: pic.twitter.com/2KkUDEAD55— Coach Colin (@CDaves434) October 22, 2023
Elliott and Kitchings have adjusted where they needed to: in short yardage situations and with regard to the degree of their aggression on fourth downs. Both the lack of willingness to go for it on fourth downs and the poor play-calling in high leverage short yardage situations were problems for this team through the first five weeks. Now though they’re capitalizing on those situations and it’s paying off in a major way.
As the play caller Kitchings also put together a game script that didn’t rely on explosive plays and was consistent enough to put up 31 points on a top-10 team. UVA’s 5% explosive rate (per Game on Paper) was in the 16th percentile of college football this week, yet their 46% success rate on offense was in the 75th. That’s evidence of an offense that didn’t need to hit the long ball or break big runs to move the chains consistently, and it’s proof of growth from an execution and play calling standpoint.
Allowing 490 yards of offense in a game isn’t ever ideal, and I considered throwing Rud in the IDK category. But that felt unfair given the final result of this game and the hand he and the entire Virginia defense have been dealt injury-wise this season. Against Drake Maye, Tez Walker, and the vaunted UNC offense, the UVA defense clutched up late in the game despite missing four defensive starters and a number of depth pieces.
After North Carolina’s touchdown drive to start the second half that put the Heels up 24-14, UVA only allowed three points on UNC’s final five possessions. The two biggest were the two at the end of the game. After the Heels gained possession from the Hollins fumble and drove to the UVA 18-yard line in two plays, Ben Smiley sacked Maye and the defense proceeded to force three incompletions from its own 20-yard line to give the ball back to the offense. Then, when Carolina got the ball back with 1:12 left on the clock, Paul Akere got home to disrupt Maye’s throw on the fifth (and final) play of UNC’s last drive, resulting in a huge James Jackson interception.
The Virginia defensive line got home on Saturday, and that’s a credit to Rudzinski and UVA’s defensive coaching staff. The inside-outside stunts they used in the pass rush worked like a charm, and they contained Drake Maye as a runner (6 carries, 17 yards). In a game against an elite offense on the road, making big plays in big moments and limiting the damage is the goal. And UVA’s defense accomplished that against North Carolina.
Steen filled in for Jimmy Christ at right tackle and played really well. He allowed no sacks, no pressures, no hurries, no QB hits, nothing in 61 snaps at right tackle. That’s probably the best performance out of a right tackle so far this season, and could result in Steen being the guy there moving forward.
Every single week Malik Washington puts on a show, and he did it again in Chapel Hill with 12 catches for 115 yards. Unreal production from an unreal player.
When UNC was driving in the last minute of the game and Virginia needed a play to be made, James Jackson made it. By diving to catch the disrupted Drake Maye pass, Jackson put this one on ice. That’s the biggest play of his career thus far, and what a time to have it.
Sackett Wood is a different animal when playing North Carolina. In his other 26 games in his career, Wood has 10 catches for 132 yards. In his last two games against UNC? How about nine catches for 156 yards. If the Wahoo offense can unlock those levels of production from Wood against other opponents, then watch out.
Ho hum, another 4.5+ yard per carry game from Perris Jones. The sixth year back led the ‘Hoos in rushing with 67 yards on 14 carries for 4.8 yards per carry. He continues to be so elusive in the backfield.
The big guy got home to sack Drake Maye! His impact doesn’t always show up in the box score as the nose tackle, but it did on Saturday.
He only had half a tackle and one QB hit on the stat sheet, but Akere’s hit on Maye that forced a wobbling pass to fall right in the range of Jackson for the game-sealing interception made all the difference. Akere has stepped up in Kam Butler’s absence in a big way.
I guess I’m just listing defensive lineman at this point. 490 yards and 27 points or not, this group got home and made life difficult for Maye in the pocket. Faumui had two QB hits and batted down a pass. Clutch performance from the vet.
The Chico Bennett of 2022 was on display in this one with a pair of pressures on Maye and a really nice tackle on a UNC backfield screen.
I ripped him when he played poorly, so I’ve gotta give him his flowers when he played well. Furnish, at right guard for 69 snaps, allowed no registered pressures, hits, sacks, etc. For a guy who tends to struggle in pass pro, that was big time.
The UVA offensive line
Same goes for Noah Josey and Brian Stevens. McKale Boley allowed two pressures, but a line of Boley-Josey-Stevens-Furnish-Steen could maybe actually be pretty solid down the line here, if this game is an indicator of future success. They stood up well against the UNC pass rush and allowed Tony Muskett time to find his receivers while also contributing to the ‘Hoos putting up a whopping 228 yards on the ground. I sure wouldn’t have predicted that, so credit to them for taking it to the Heels.
Screw the typical disclaimer. They lost. They’re losers.
Mack “Mr. February” Brown
Tony Elliott owns you.
Drake “Heisman Candidate” Maye
Tony Muskett owns you.
North “CFP Contender” Carolina
Virginia owns you.
Every VA recruit who’s gone to UNC
Kam Robinson owns you.
I don’t knows
Expectations for the rest of the 2023 season
It’s hard to know how much this result tells up about this year’s Virginia team moving forward. The ceiling is absolutely higher than we thought. Is the floor? Who knows right now. This could absolutely be a sign of the team and coaching staff putting all the pieces together en route to a successful final five games. But it’d also be unreasonable to expect them to go 4-1 and secure bowl eligibility, especially considering the gauntlet of a schedule that’s upcoming.
The recruiting impact this game will have
At the very least this puts Virginia back on the upswing in the eyes of recruits. After suffering a few de-commits over the last couple weeks, this is a major feather in this staff’s cap on the trail and should allow them to tell a story of how this program is now on that upswing. But they’ll need a string of results down the stretch here to cement that sentiment in the minds of fans and recruits. That said this team is in such an unbelievably better spot now than it was on Saturday morning.