In a victory which was never comfortable but incredibly satisfying, Tony Elliott picked up his first ACC win at Scott Stadium as the Virginia Cavaliers head coach as the ‘Hoos held on late for a 30-27 victory over Duke. Anthony Colandrea shone with three passing touchdowns in the finest start of his young career, Malik Washington set multiple school receiving records and continued a stellar season, and Virginia outlasted the Blue Devils for a feel-good victory.
Here are our five takeaways from the encouraging victory:
Malik Washington’s superstar season continues
There’s not much to be said about Malik Washington that hasn’t already been evident over the past 10 weeks of incredible offensive production. He’s the most impactful transfer in recent Virginia history, a legitimate contender for the Biletnikoff Award and the best wide receiver in the ACC.
Washington made his mark early when he took an in-breaking route 35 yards for Virginia’s first touchdown of the game, showcasing the acceleration and YAC ability which has made him such a threat all season long for explosive plays. The Duke safety didn’t have a chance once Washington turned on the jets.
Washington finished the game with 8 receptions for 112 yards and 2 touchdowns. He set the Virginia single-season record for receptions and receiving yards today, and still has another game against Virginia Tech to further extend those records. Oh, and he also did this:
What an incredible success story for Washington, the coaching staff and the program.
Jonas Sanker and Caleb Hardy shine as defensive playmakers
On a day where Virginia’s defensive playmakers shone in a strong effort against the Duke offense, Jonas Sanker and Caleb Hardy’s big moments stood out. Sanker dominated the first half with impact plays, most notably a huge forced fumble in the first quarter with Duke driving deep into Virginia territory. Sanker (along with Kam Robinson) popped the ball out of Jordan Waters’s grasp, and Caleb Hardy was in perfect position to recover.
Sanker also came up with a huge third-down tackle in space on Jaylen Coleman, who looked to have space for a fairly easy first down after a checkdown but was stopped short after Sanker showcased elite closing speed to force a Duke punt. It would ultimately be negated by an Aaron Faumui unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, but Sanker also closed nicely on a 3rd and 12 pass to record a big PBU late in the first half.
Hardy, for his part, made the biggest defensive play of the second half for the Cavaliers with a tremendous interception over the middle of the field. Duke QB Grayson Loftis just didn’t see Hardy on an attempted throw into the heart of the defense, and Hardy made him pay with an athletic leaping interception from his spot in a shallow zone. Hardy’s return would be negated by another personal foul penalty (noticing a trend?), but the freshman came up big with his best performance of the season.
Inconsistent officiating makes for a frustrating viewing experience
The ACC officiating crew didn’t exactly distinguish themselves in the first half. The raw numbers were one-sided: Virginia was called for 8 penalties for 74 yards, while Duke didn’t have a single penalty enforced against them (a few flags were thrown but resulted in offsetting penalties). A soft personal foul on Ethan Davies wiped out a big 20-yard run in the second quarter, and an unclear personal foul call against Aaron Faumui extended a Duke drive on 3rd and 12.
However, the miscues didn’t only go against Virginia. The officials (correctly) flagged Virginia for a holding penalty in the end zone, which should’ve given Duke a safety late in the second quarter. However, they inexplicably argued much to Mike Elko’s frustration that the hold occurred outside of the end zone — a big break for the Cavaliers. After calling a ticky-tack personal foul on Faumui to extend Duke’s late drive, they then missed an incredibly blatant unsportsmanlike conduct penalty a few plays later when Faumui threw Duke RB Jaquez Moore’s shoe across the field. And they let a pretty clear pass interference penalty in the end zone on Dre Walker go with 11 seconds left in the first half.
Before you start feeling too sympathetic for the poor Blue Devils, remember that they received a pretty friendly call on their only TD of the first half on an apparently-bobbled catch and the officials also upheld an incomplete-pass call on an apparent Duke catch and fumble which would’ve handed Virginia the ball in scoring territory. Things didn’t get any better in the second half, either — the Cavaliers finished with 117 penalty yards to Duke’s 10. Incompetent officiating across the board just makes the sport less enjoyable to watch.
Anytime a tweet like this shows up on my timeline, something’s probably gone wrong:
I don’t say this lightly: Feels like we’re a flag or so away from a developing situation with fans and refs here. This is absurd.— Brad Franklin (@Cavs_Corner) November 18, 2023
The best start of Anthony Colandrea’s young UVA career
It hasn’t always been pretty for Anthony Colandrea, but against Duke he put together the most complete game of his young career. Colandrea completed 21 of 30 passes for 278 yards and three touchdowns in an incredibly efficient passing performance — and really should’ve had another touchdown if not for a bad drop by Malachi Fields in the back of the end zone late in the fourth quarter, and another 50 yards if not for an equally poor drop on a beautiful deep shot to Ethan Davies.
Perhaps even more notable than the stats Colandrea did rack up were the stats he didn’t: zero turnovers for the true freshman. In fact, there weren’t really any close calls — Colandrea didn’t put the ball on the ground at all, and only threw one arguably interceptable pass in 30 attempts. He looked every bit the better quarterback against Duke’s backup Grayson Loftis.
When you watch some of his big-time throws, like this beautiful 29-yard touchdown dime to Malachi Fields, it’s hard not to get excited about the future of this program with Colandrea at the helm.
Anthony Colandrea finds Malachi Fields with a 29-yard TD pass pic.twitter.com/ZU0XLWFGWn— The CW Sports (@TheCW_Sports) November 18, 2023
The vibes are good in Charlottesville!
This Virginia football team has all sorts of imperfections. They’ve been dealing with injuries to their starting QB and key playmakers on both sides of the ball all year, they’d lost all four of their games decided by three or fewer points entering today and at the end of the day their 3-8 record speaks for itself. But week in and week out they continue to play with absolute heart for all 60 minutes.
How can you not be excited watching true freshman Anthony Colandrea play with swagger and sling it all over the field in a season where he wasn’t expected to play a snap? Or watching Suderian Harrison make his first big plays of the season down the stretch on a crucial drive for Virginia to extend the game to two scores. Or watch the Cavaliers inexplicably run a tush push with third stringer Grady Brosterhous on fourth down with over two yards to go, only to successfully convert and go on to score?
Sure, it’s a cliche. But it’s hard not to be optimistic watching the infectious energy on Virginia’s sideline in a game which is technically “meaningless” for bowl eligibility, the ACC title race or anything besides the desire to win every football game. Tony Elliott’s kept this team playing hard game in and game out despite seemingly endless adversity, and they’re playing with the heart of a team totally bought in.
Anyways, after a season full of coming up short — the collective missed opportunities late against JMU, NC State, Boston College, Miami, and Louisville still sting — the Cavaliers have an opportunity to finish this season on a high note. Just beat Tech. Easier said than done, sure, but with the energy this Virginia squad is playing with it’s absolutely within reach.