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First half observations from Virginia football vs Tennessee

Analyzing the first 30 minutes of UVA’s season.

NCAA Football: Virginia at Tennessee Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

The Virginia Cavaliers are losing 21-3 to the Tennessee Volunteers at halftime. With the first 30 minutes of UVA football in the books, we’ve got some observations for how the ‘Hoos have played against a stellar opponent.

Lex Long, Kam Butler, and Jonas Sanker flash for Virginia’s defense

The three best players for UVA in the first half were three of their defensive stars. Sanker, Long, and Butler all made a number of highlight plays in critical situations for the Wahoo defense.

Starting with Long, he helped to make a crucial fourth-and-one tackle early in the first. He also had an impressive pass break up across the middle. He’s the complete package as a safety/linebacker hybrid.

Sanker had a touchdown saving PBU in the second quarter. He has the instincts to get his hands up just in time despite trailing his receiver. That’s savvy. He also flew down to the flat to stuff a Tennessee bubble screen on third down in the redzone. If it hadn’t been for the Vols scoring on fourth-and-five, he would’ve saved that drive.

Butler’s been doing a little bit of everything. He’s playing BANDIT in Chico Bennett’s absence and had a really nice coverage rep where he tackle Tennessee’s receiver just short of the line to gain. Then he combined with Long to force the turnover on downs the very next play. He also generated Su Agunloye’s sack by stunting with Aaron Faumui and creating penetration.

Tony Muskett can sling it and Malachi Fields can catch it

He hasn’t had much time to throw. But when he has, Muskett showed off the arm, the legs, and the persona he has as Virginia’s quarterback. 7-11 for 73 yards is nothing special. Yet that’s respectable considering how under pressure he’s been.

Malachi Fields also had a really nice first half as UVA’s number one wideout. His three catches for 48 yards were some of the only positive plays for the Wahoo offense, and he was ever-so-close to hauling in a highlight catch down the right sideline to give him catches on all four first half targets.

If Muskett can get a clean pocket, he and Fields can light it up.

Ugonna Nnanna needs help at right tackle

Virginia’s offensive line was bad in the first half, but right tackle Ugonna Nnanna was the worst of the bunch. He was consistently blown by when Tony Muskett dropped back into the pocket. He’s been getting beat by speed, power, everything.

UVA’s staff also didn’t do much to help him. Once it became clear that he was losing nearly every rep, the ‘Hoos should’ve started chipping his opponent with a tight end or even committing a back to Muskett’s right side to help pick up pressure.

Ty Furnish has also been snapping low for most of this game. It’s made it more difficult for Tony Muskett to get into a rhythm, and one particularly low one prevented the offense from having the chance to convert a third-and-short midway through the second quarter.

Play calling is still a problem

I don’t pretend to be any play-calling genius, but Virginia’s decision making particularly in scoring range was suspect. From the Vols’ 10-yard line in the first quarter UVA went outside run, outside run, QB draw. That’s not how you win football games.

Then, near the end of the half, Virginia elected to kick a field goal on fourth-and-five on the 21-yard line to cut the Tennessee lead to 11. The Volunteers followed that up with a touchdown drive that put them up 21-3 at halftime. If you want to beat a top program in the country, you have to score touchdowns. You have to be gutsy, and be willing to come up short if you fail.

It’s a small detail, and scoring a touchdown on that drive still probably wouldn’t change the final result. But still. It’s notable.

All in all, that could’ve been a much worse half than it was. There were a lot of flashes from players all over the lineup, and that’s all you can ask for against this caliber of an opponent.