Saturday’s 36-35 loss to the James Madison Dukes was defined by a momentum-destroying rain delay and a gut-wrenching final 12 minutes and six seconds during which the Virginia Cavaliers watched an 11-point lead evaporate. Despite the unfortunate ending, however, the afternoon should be remembered as freshman quarterback Anthony Colandrea’s coming-out party.
With week-one starter Tony Muskett still recovering from the shoulder injury he suffered against Tennessee last weekend, Colandrea was thrust into the starting role on Saturday. The freshman made the most of his opportunity, racking up 377 passing yards and two touchdowns (both single-game UVA freshman records). Colandrea, who attended Lakewood High School in St. Petersburg, Florida, also became the first true freshman to start at quarterback for the Wahoos in a home-opener since 1977.
“It was awesome,” Colandrea said of the opportunity to start on Saturday. “It was something [that] I dreamed of as a little kid and going out there, starting today, it was just a huge blessing.”
In front of an announced attendance of 56,508 at Scott Stadium (the largest crowd for a home opener since 2015), the 5’11” 180-pound Colandrea looked composed and confident. He was calm in the pocket, completing 20-of-26 pass attempts, but also did an excellent job extending plays with his legs when necessary.
It was a “tough situation, but he was prepared. He was ready,” Head Coach Tony Elliot said after the game. “We knew that he’s a guy that when the lights come on, the bigger the stage, he seems like he elevates.”
Colandrea, a 3-star recruit coming out of high school, flashed with both his arm and his legs against JMU. The freshman signal-caller was accurate and consistently put enough heat on his passes to fit the ball into some very tight windows.
His arm strength was on display on his first touchdown pass midway through the first quarter when, with a rare clean pocket around him, Colandrea found Malik Washington up the left sideline. Colandrea’s throw had some serious zip, hitting Washington in stride, allowing his receiver to churn out the yards-after-catch needed for the 62-yard score.
Although a clean pocket was not a luxury that Colandrea was afforded very often, this allowed him to display another impressive attribute — keeping his eyes downfield while scrambling away from pressure to find open receivers.
There was no better example of this skill than the first play from scrimmage of the second half when JMU’s interior rush burst through UVA’s o-line, but Colandrea calmly escaped the pocket and fired back across his body to hit Kobe Pace beyond the Dukes’ secondary for a 75-yard touchdown (the longest ever by a UVA freshman quarterback).
VIRGINIA TAKES THE LEAD!!— Video from: @TSV__1 (@TSV__1) September 9, 2023
Anthony Colandrea ➡️ Kobe Pace for the 75 yard TD!! pic.twitter.com/qgsBVFMmes
Elliot commended Colandrea’s elusiveness on the big play to Pace after the game, noting how on “the play you saw with Kobe…we have a breakdown in protection that forces [Colandrea] to flush the pocket and then he doesn’t panic. He keeps his eyes down the field, he finds Kobe… we weren’t great in protection, and then the quarterback found a way to erase it and make it right.”
Colandrea’s teammates were pumped to see the freshman succeed. “Great game from him. I’m proud of the dude to come out here, handle this environment, the situation and go through all his progressions,” Kobe Pace said after the game. “He seemed to make stuff happen and I’m excited to see what he does in the future.”
For Malik Washington, there was never a doubt that the young QB could get the job done. “I trust in every single quarterback that’s in that room. I know all of them can make plays. They’re all talented. Colandrea came out and he did his job and that’s all you can really ask for.”
Of course, there were times when Colandrea looked the part of a true freshman quarterback — namely a telegraphed interception in the third quarter — but mistakes are inevitable when an offense becomes one dimensional. UVA’s offensive line continued to be a big area of concern for the ‘Hoos as Colandrea was constantly under pressure and was sacked four times. UVA’s running game sputtered as well with the Cavaliers’ backs combining to rush 28 times for just 48 yards.
Regardless, Colandrea was a major positive development in what was otherwise a heartbreaking game. Although Coach Elliot said after the game that Muskett will reclaim his job as the starter once he is fully healthy (which is expected to be this Friday against Maryland), Colandrea proved that he is more than capable of stepping in if needed again this season and provided a glimpse of a very bright future.