The Virginia Cavaliers dropped to 0-4 for the first time since 1982 with Friday’s loss to NC State Wolfpack. The first third of the regular season has been frustrating for a program and a fanbase searching for reasons to be optimistic about the future.
Along with our five takeaways from Friday night’s defeat, we’re breaking down who performed well, who didn’t, and who did a little bit of both with another winners, losers, and I don’t knows column.
As a disclaimer, this post is not calling any of these individuals “losers”. It’s rather a mode of analyzing who played well and who didn’t in Friday’s game. All these individuals dedicate loads of time to perfecting their craft, and this isn’t meant to put anyone down as much as it is to highlight areas for improvement for the Wahoos moving forward.
He’s not perfect, and the freshmen moments have been noticeable. But Anthony Colandrea will not stop giving fans reasons to root for him. He’s extremely talented for a freshman quarterback and his biggest deficiencies are fixable with more time on the field. Colandrea threw for 271 yards, a pair of scores, and a pair of interceptions in his 18-of-30 night against the Pack.
The first pick wasn’t his fault and was simply a crazy play from the NCSU secondary, but the second one was him being too aggressive and trying too hard to make something out of nothing. He also should have pulled the ball more when UVA ran the ball when the ‘Hoos ran zone read in order to establish the threat of his legs earlier. And not putting his helmet back on when it slightly fell off was tough, yet understandable for a young gun.
With the proper coaching, those are mistakes that can be cleaned up. He’s still a touch lacking on the deep ball down outside the hashes. Again though, that should come with time.
The reason Colandrea is among the winners is because of how he bounced back to lead the offense on a game-tying drive. After throwing those interceptions, the game seemed headed in the same direction that last Friday’s loss to Maryland went. Yet he showed growth from a mental standpoint, was resilient, and strung together another stretch of highlight plays to get the job done. On the final drive he threw for 50 yards, ran for 10, converted a fourth-and-one on the State 16-yard line, threw for a touchdown on third-and-goal, and then scrambled and hit Malachi Fields for the two-point conversion from the 18-yard line.
If this isn’t enough to establish him as the future of the program I don’t know what is. And considering the team’s current record, benching him for Tony Muskett would be unlikely to produce better enough results in the short term to justify potentially jeopardizing Colandrea’s development or commitment to Virginia in the long term.
Malik Washington is playing at an All-ACC level through four weeks. He caught 10 balls for 170 yards and two touchdowns (all career highs) in his ACC opener. The Northwestern receiver is truly a do-it-all wideout, and he’s been the driving force behind this offense alongside Colandrea. Even if his one season in Charlottesville doesn’t produce many wins, he’s majorly improving his professional stock with these performances.
The second of three true freshmen listed as winners from Friday’s game, Robinson started his first career game with Josh Ahern out and consistently made plays all over the field. He led UVA in tackles with 11. He also registered one hurry and did well as a blitzer.
As a former four star recruit, Robinson’s athleticism is so obvious when he’s on the field. He’s got the requisite size, strength, and speed to be a very good ACC linebacker, it’s just about putting it all together.
Jackson had a similarly positive outing. He sacked Brennan Armstrong once and totaled two hurries as his physicality as a blitzer stood out. Running backs can’t block him, and that was a valuable component of UVA’s ploys to force Armstrong to panic under the lights.
Yet another true freshman had a solid performance in UVA’s first ACC contest of the 2023 season. Virginia had been rotating transfers Malcolm Greene and Sam Westfall at outside right corner, but Walker’s game against NCSU was a big feather in his cap. On four targets, he let up just one reception for nine yards and broke up two passes.
King’s been a rare consistent performer within the UVA defense this season. NC State barely threw at him with the two targets resulting in one reception for 0 yards. For all the team’s problems, it’s nice to be able to rely on him to shut things down on the outside.
Micah Gaffney nabbed his first career interception on Friday night and played well in his 27 snaps. The coaching staff gave him an opportunity to fill in for Tayvonn Kyle in the slot for roughly half the game, and he paid them back by making a big play when the ball came his way.
Despite all the injuries to his defense and the weak points that exist, Defensive Coordinator John Rudzinski put together an effective game plan to slow down Brennan Armstrong and the NC State offense. He was more aggressive in blitzing the linebackers, and that paid off in the long run.
NC State had only four scoring drives on Friday night with the first touchdown coming on a 49-yard drive after the UVA offense failed to convert on a fourth-and-one try in its own territory. The defense was put in a tough spot again on the final drive of the game when Colandrea’s penalty and a big return put the Wolfpack on the UVA 48 just 15 yards from field goal range.
On the 11 drives that NC State started in their own territory, Rud’s defense allowed only 14 points. That’s a successful day at the office for a defense that was without its starting strong safety (Lex Long), its starting WILL linebacker (Ahern), one of its starting defensive ends (Kam Butler), another starter in the secondary (Antonio Clary), a two-deep defensive tackle (Su Agunloye), and the third and fourth best ends (Ben Smiley and Paul Akere).
Again, these guys aren’t losers! They just didn’t have a good game on Friday night and this is merely a way to evaluate what happened in the team’s loss.
Every week there are fewer and fewer reasons why Ty Furnish should be starting on UVA’s offensive line. After he was moved from center to right guard last week after snapping issues forced the coaching staff’s hand, Furnish continued to be a liability in pass protection against NC State. He let up four total pressures and one sack. He’s undersized for the position and too often is responsible for the pocket collapsing on Colandrea.
Even if he had played like the best right guard in the conference, Furnish also was a major detriment to the Wahoos with his poor decisions after the whistle. He head-butted an NC State player after the last minute TD and forced UVA to go for two from the 18-yard line. If it hadn’t been for Colandrea and Malachi Fields’ heroics on that play, Furnish’s dumb decision would’ve cost the ‘Hoos a chance to win the game.
What’s worse is that wasn’t the only time he let his emotions get the best of him, indicating this is a pattern more than it was a one off for the junior lineman.
Furnish’s upside has always been as a run blocker who can take advantage of being slightly smaller to more easily move to the second level. But, in an offense that hasn’t been able to establish the run and doesn’t have the requisite size or ability up front anyway, his value there hasn’t been nearly enough to make up for his struggles in pass pro nor his bonehead decisions.
Nnanna allowed two sacks and another hurry against the Wolfpack. He’s not big enough, quick enough, or technically sound enough to be the answer for the ‘Hoos at right tackle. At guard he’d probably fit well, and that’s why the team needs Penn State Jimmy Christ to get fully healthy and back in game shape ASAP.
Virginia’a running game
UVA’s running backs ran for 2.4 yards per carry (63 yards on 26 carries) on Friday night. That’s too high of a volume for being so ineffective. The scheme seems to be stuck in the mud, and Perris Jones only getting one carry after being the team’s leading rusher through three weeks was an odd choice.
The ‘Hoos also struggled mightily to convert short yardage scenarios, a sign of their inability to run the ball when it matters most. The commitment to running out of the shotgun is too dramatic and the coaching staff’s decisions to kick the ball deep in NCSU territory with mere yards to gain on fourth down indicates that they don’t trust their scheme, their line, and their backs to be able to get the hard yards. It’s hard to win football games if you can’t do that.
I find it tough to be too harsh on Elliott on a game-to-game basis all things considered, but the extremely costly mistakes that his players continue to make when the game is on the line are a sign of a team that hasn’t had the details drilled through them. Elliott also continues to buck analytics with his decisions for when to go for it on fourth down and when to punt. Even when he did make the correct call, the play calls (which are on him and OC Des Kitchings) tended to put the offense in a bad spot.
Elliott’s teams are 2-5 in one score games since his arrival in Charlottesville. There’s luck involved, and there is a difference in talent against most opponents. But at a certain point this team needs to put it together for 60 minutes and it’s on Elliott to get them there.
The Virginia defense’s health
I’ve already gone into who UVA was missing in this game, but edge Kam Butler’s shoulder injury added injury to injury for a depleted Wahoo defense. On paper, this defense at full strength could be solid, but it’s hard to put together consistent results without any real week-to-week continuity. There are problems that go deeper than that, but injuries have meant that we haven’t gotten a true look at what Rudzinski’s group can do at its best.
I don’t knows
Kitching’s commitment to the run when it wasn’t working and his play calling in high leverage situations continue to be head scratchers. But he also has dialed up some awesome chunk plays over the past few weeks and put together a masterful final drive to tie the game at 21 apiece. He’s starting to find his groove as a play caller with Colandrea at the helm, and the Wahoo offense has reaped the benefits.
For this team to win games, though, Kitchings and Elliott are going to have to at least slightly get away from their desire to run the ball, start to be more aggressive on fourth downs, and find better ways to gain a few yards when the situation calls for it.
UVA’s special teams
Will Bettridge went 2-2 on field goals of 36 and 22 yards while also nailing all three of his extra points. Daniel Sparks’ five punts weren’t boomers, but he averaged a solid 40.6 yards per and pinned the Wolfpack inside the 20 once.
On the other hand, Ethan Davies muffed his second punt of the season after he and the special teams unit clearly underestimated the strength of NC State punter Caden Noonkester’s leg and he had to try to field the ball while running backwards. Davies then was clearly told to back up for ensuing punts, and was promptly too far back to make competitive plays on the ball. UVA also allowed that killer 35-yard kick return in the final minute of the game.
Altogether, there’s definitely room for improvement, but it wasn’t all bad for Keith Gaither’s group.
Virginia’s pass catching depth
Washington and Malachi Fields are studs, but Virginia doesn’t have much of anything going beyond them in the passing game. Demick Starling’s decision to redshirt and transfer out of the program has left the ‘Hoos without a starter, and the younger wideouts haven’t yet impressed in their opportunities. JR Wilson in particular had a bad drop on a deep ball from Colandrea in the first half.
UVA’s tight ends entered the game with just one catch so far this season. Sackett Wood hauled in two for 34 yards which was promising, yet not necessarily inspiring. Opposing defenses are going to start keying in on Fields and Washington more heavily. When they do, the others are going to have to step up or UVA’s passing offense — one of the few strengths of the team thus far — will struggle to continue to produce at the same level.