The Virginia Cavaliers suffered a loss to the Tennessee Volunteers in their season opener, falling 49-13 in a game where Tennessee rolled but the ‘Hoos still impressed in stretches. With the loss, we have five takeaways for Tony Elliott and his team as they look ahead playing to less daunting competition moving forward.
Tony Muskett’s injury could be debilitating
Things weren’t by any means going to plan when Tony Muskett injured his left shoulder and left the game in the fourth quarter. Yet the ‘Hoos had at least showed flashes on either end of the field and had improved in a number of areas such that fans could feel optimistic coming out of this game.
But then Muskett went down. Hard. How gingerly he was grabbing at his left shoulder the way and fell to the ground on his way off the field suggests he at least separated his shoulder. He went into the locker room just a few minutes after coming off the field and then came out 10 or so minutes later in pads but with no helmet. It’s entirely possible he broke his collarbone and that’s it for his 2023 season.
If that’s the case, this season just lost most of the juice it had. Anthony Colandrea is a capable backup who will be fun to watch as the program’s presumed future starter who can make sweet plays in the running game. But Virginia’s ceiling will be dramatically lowered if Muskett doesn’t see the field again.
Best case, his shoulder is only separated and he misses at most a week or two. Worst case we’re hoping the Cavaliers can still pick up a couple wins with Colandrea. Here’s to hoping the former.
There are stars on Virginia’s defense
Putting the nightmare scenario aside for the moment, there are All-ACC players on this Virginia defense. Strong safety Lex Long, free safety Jonas Sanker, and defensive end Kam Butler all had impressive performances against the Vols. All three of those guys were big pieces of last year’s defense, but they made highlight plays all over the field in this game.
Butler led the Wahoos in solo tackles with eight and displayed how versatile he can be as a pass rusher, a run defender, and as an option to drop back into coverage.
Long had a nice pass breakup in the first half and matched Butler’s eight total tackles. How Virginia uses him in its defense when fellow safety Antonio Clary returns from injury will be interesting. He has the size to play in the box and the speed and the length to cover. If it needed proving, Long made it obvious that he will be a playmaker for the Wahoos this season.
Sanker filled up the stat sheet as well with seven total tackles and a pair of break ups. He’s a great player to have as the defense’s free safety backing everybody else up. Very little gets by Sanker, and that’s a real benefit for this team.
Defensive tackle Jahmeer Carter also had a solid first game of the year. Like the rest of the team he simply couldn’t match the superior size, strength, and skill of Tennessee. But he crashed into the Volunteer backfield multiple times in short yardage situations. For UVA to be able to bend but not break his penetration as the nose tackle will be paramount.
Malachi Fields is that dude at wide receiver
Malachi Fields and Tony Muskett have clearly established chemistry in the offseason and Fields’ quality is shining through as many thought it would. He led the ‘Hoos with four catches for 63 yards on eight targets. He could’ve corralled a few more of the balls that went his way, but the windows that Muskett was throwing into were small enough that Fields can be excused for not catching every ball that came his way.
Fields’ presence in the middle of the field was most notable. He’s always been a playmaker who can make circus catches along the boundary. But the way he moved to space against Tennessee and made catches in traffic was impressive and speaks to the versatility of his game. UVA is going to lean on Fields heavily as this season progresses, so it’s good to see him establish a rhythm in the season opener.
The UVA offense’s biggest key is limiting the line’s damage
It’s not news that UVA’s offensive line is the team’s biggest weakness in 2023. Today’s game only displayed where the holes are exactly. Ugonna Nnanna got beat all game long at right tackle. For a while, the ‘Hoos didn’t do enough to help him over there. But they found ways to scheme more time for Muskett in the second half via tight ends chipping Nnanna’s opponents and the backs favoring that side in pass protection.
Center Ty Furnish, who we considered to be a key for Virginia being at all competitive in this game, also had a rough outing. His snaps were consistently low and that had a big impact on the offense and its inability to establish a rhythm. Furnish also whiffed on some blocks in the running game.
The line will be better off when Jimmy Christ returns to play at right tackle. And there were some nice signs in the second half when UVA established the run with Perris Jones and Kobe Pace running between the tackles. Jones and Pace each ran it seven times for 39 yards (5.6 yards per carry) with Jones’ 17-yard touchdown run the highlight of the game for the ‘Hoos.
That goes to say that Virginia’s offense is still capable of putting points on the board this season. Scoring 13 in the season opener isn’t ideal. But doing that against #12 Tennessee isn’t bad. If UVA continues to garner momentum on the ground — notably to the left side of the line where McKale Boley and Noah Josey played well — and Muskett’s injury isn’t season ending then this offense can be an average unit in the ACC.
UVA’s running backs are talented
Pace and Jones’ aforementioned success running the ball in the second half was a much needed point of optimism for the Cavaliers. They were each shifty in the backfield and did well to find holes, hit them, and then make defenders miss in space. The two of them along with Mike Hollins make for a nice running back trio.
Jones’ speed was particularly eye-popping. After getting his first real time at running back last season he seems more comfortable in 2023. Pace was stout in pass protecting, and the size he provides between the tackles is the perfect complement to Jones’ quick feet. Their combination of traits will make life difficult for defenses this fall.
Altogether it’s hard to feel good coming out of a 36-point blowout. But this result was always bound to happen. Now it comes down to how hurt Muskett is, how much the team can build on the positives from this game, and how well the staff can adjust to help their guys be successful.