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Winners, losers, and I don’t knows from Virginia football’s loss to Tennessee

Analyzing the individual performances in UVA’s loss to the Vols.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 02 Virginia vs Tennessee Photo by Bryan Lynn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Virginia Cavaliers football team lost to the Tennessee Volunteers on Saturday to the tune of a 49-13 final score. It certainly wasn’t pretty.

But now that game is in the books and we get a chance to analyze what the result tells us about the next 11 games for the ‘Hoos. So these are the individual winners, losers, and I don’t knows for UVA from Saturday’s defeat.

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 Saturday’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.



Just adding this to check the box. The Vols are legit. If Joe Milton can hit the five or so open throws he missed, that offense is seriously scary. Tennessee’s size, speed, and strength was simply too much for the ‘Hoos in Nashville. That makes evaluating Virginia’s performance a bit difficult since the players who struggled could be far better against ACC-sized players.

Mike Hollins

Couldn’t not put Hollins here. The mere fact that Hollins could lead UVA out of the tunnel constitutes a victory. He’s a superhero. He’s a walking inspiration and he will only continue to inspire every time he steps on the field.

And he still put together a solid performance between the lines! Hollins got a bit hosed by the offensive line in the first half when he carried the ball, but he provided a necessary pass blocking presence. The big back should thrive in the red zone when the Wahoo offensive line gets healthier and actually establishes a rhythm.

Kobe Pace and Perris Jones

Pace and Jones complete UVA’s trio of top backs, and they combined to carry the offense down the field for the team’s lone touchdown of the game. Jones’ 17-yard run was the on-field highlight of the day while Pace’s 22-yarder to set it up was the longest run of the game for the Cavaliers.

They each showed off how shifty they can be, each breaking multiple tackles and eluding defenders who’d broken into the backfield. That says something and indicates they could do even more damage over the next three months.

Kam Butler

Butler was everywhere defensively against the Vols making plays as a pass rusher, run stopper, and edge/linebacker hybrid. He is 100% capable of playing BANDIT, and Defensive Coordinator John Rudzinksi could have some fun with him and Chico Bennett when Bennett returns from injury. Their ability to drop into coverage means Rudzinski can send unexpected pressure from anywhere and still back one of them out.

On rewatch, Butler’s instincts stood out. He ran down multiple wide receiver bubble screens and stopped them short of the line to gain. That’s impressive for an edge defender and speaks to his value as a veteran presence who boasts plus athleticism.

Jonas Sanker and Lex Long

Sanker and Lex Long are the backbone of the Virginia defense. They hardly ever make mistakes, and both of them seemed to be in on every play. We’ve already covered how impressive their performances were in depth. But it’s worth repeating how paramount each of their contributions are for this defense.

Sanker only let up two catches on six targets with two pass breakups. He made plays everywhere and took snaps in the box, in the slot, and out deep as the free safety. Long led the ‘Hoos with eight tackles and showed off his added weight with his effectiveness as a run defender.

Malachi Fields

Malachi Fields’ is UVA’s number one receiver. Saturday made that clear with his four catch 63 yard performance one of the rare bright spots for UVA’s offense. Read more on his performance here.

UVA’s attention to detail

After penalties and turnovers doomed the Wahoo offense and team as a whole last year, Tony Elliott’s squad didn’t turn the ball over once against the Vols and only had two penalties. One was a false start from Sackett Wood on an important third down, but the other was merely a false start on a punt from inside Vol territory.

That’s improvement, and it speaks to the coaching staff’s focus this offseason regarding cleaning up the intricacies of the game. UVA definitely didn’t beat themselves. Sure, they got beat. But that’s better than the alternative and projects better for the rest of the season.


Yeah, Virginia lost this game. But they won. They won for being out there. That’s not a small thing.


Again, these guys aren’t losers! They just had tough outings on Saturday, but that’s especially reasonable considering the competition!

Ugonna Nnanna

It became obvious pretty quickly who the biggest weakness was for the ‘Hoos on offense on Saturday. Nnanna simply couldn’t hang at right tackle against Tennessee’s edges. Either he was getting powered through, ran around to the outside, or baited outside before getting beat inside. He’s a guard playing tackle, and that was obvious from the jump. He gave up two sacks — the only two credited to a lineman by PFF — on 27 pass blocking snaps. That’s not good.

Eventually the Wahoo offense gave him help with tight ends chipping his opponent and/or shading a back to him in pass protection. And Nnanna settled in to the point where he wasn’t impacting every play. But Penn State transfer Jimmy Christ — the presumed starting right tackle — can’t get back from injury soon enough.

Ty Furnish

Furnish is the only returning starter on Virginia’s line, yet he had his fair share of troubles against the Vols. Tony Muskett had to crouch so often for Furnish’s snaps that he ended up bending and lowering his hands before the ball was even snapped. There were two third-and-shorts which Furnish doomed by turfing the ball and proceeding to miss his assigned block.

How much this is a sign of further troubles to come and how much it is the sheer size and strength of the opponent is to be decided. Furnish struggles when opponents send a big body right at him, and he and Brian Stevens had their hands full blocking Tennessee’s sizable defensive tackles despite both being undersized. Furnish also hasn’t had many if any snapping problems in the past.

Hopefully against more well matched defenses Furnish will be able to get comfortable snapping the ball and he’ll be able to get up field as a run blocker where he thrives.

Brian Stevens

Like Furnish, Stevens simply couldn’t cope with the physical disadvantage he was up against. He’s got potential as an effective down field blocker who has the experience to get by in the ACC as a pass blacker. But the way the Vols’ defensive line bullied him and Furnish on the inside suggests that UVA needs more size at right guard, either with Nnanna after Christ’s return or with backups Jestus Johnson or Noah DeMerritt.

Tayvonn Kyle

Whereas most of Virginia’s defense could hang with the Volunteers offense before the eventual wearing down was too much, SPUR/nickel corner Tayvonn Kyle was exposed pretty quickly as exploitable in the passing game and the running game.

He missed two tackles of the five opportunities he had, one which was a touchdown and another that led to a quarterback sneak TD on the ensuing play. On both he took poor angles and wasn’t willing to embrace contact.

Through the air, Kyle was targeted six times which resulted in five catches for 50 yards and a touchdown, per PFF. 30 of those yards were after the catch, implying he either left guys so open that they kept gaining or that he couldn’t get them down after they caught the ball. Those numbers are bad. Real bad.

Again, it likely won’t be this egregious against lesser competition. But other coaches will identify Kyle as pick-on-able. Fortunately, safety Antonio Clary should be back from injury next week which will mean that the ‘Hoos can use some combination of Sanker, Long, and Clary to fill those slot snaps that Kyle played against Tennessee.

I don’t knows

Tony Muskett

Muskett had a perfectly respectable performance considering how many Vols were in his face all game long. 9-for-17 for 94 yards isn’t anything flashy, but he made some big throws in important situations and displayed a willingness to step into his throws, soak a hit, and fire the ball into tight windows. That’s absolutely a positive.

His shoulder injury in the fourth quarter is what complicates matters. We should get an update on Muskett’s status by tomorrow afternoon when Tony Elliott has his weekly press conference. But until then Muskett’s status and the potential for Virginia this season are up in the air.

Anthony Colandrea

Colandrea has talent. That’s not up for debate. Neither is how much of a gamer he is. It’s entirely reasonable that his performance in his first college football game against a team with NCAA title aspirations wasn’t world-beating.

He ran twice for 17 yards and boasts serious speed, elite change of direction, the ability to make dudes miss, and comfort in the read option. He’s also got an arm, but the Florida native did put the ball in harm’s way a few times and is still a bit missing in the accuracy department.

If he’s the guy moving forward, it’ll be fun to watch. It might not always be clean, though.

Will Bettridge

Bettridge deserves all the credit in the world for taking the field wearing no. 41 and for honoring D’Sean Perry. It takes courage to return to football after what happened, and I respect him immensely for that. He also absolutely has talent as a kicker.

That said, his 28-yard miss in the first quarter versus Tennessee was not good. Yeah, it would’ve had little tangible impact on the final result. But those need to be automatic. He was perfect after that with a 40-yarder, a 30-yarder, and an extra point. But 30-and-in needs to be automatic, and if it can be 40 and in then that’s solid.

Bettridge has the ability that warrants patience, and that first miss was probably more nerves and the emotion of the situation than it was anything else.

Daniel Sparks

This might come as a surprise, but Sparks still has noticeable room for improvement. He’s got a trebuchet for a leg evidenced by his nine punts that averaged 42.7 yards. He also pinned the Vols inside the 20 three times and made a tackle as the last line of defense on one long return from Tennessee’s Dee Williams.

But Sparks continued to struggle with out-kicking the coverage. Sure, that’s partially on the coverage not getting down the field fast enough. At a certain point, though, Sparks will need to find a way to dial back his distances or dial up the air time. The three punts that Tennessee returned averaged 30 yards per return with the longest going 55 yards. And one of those ended in a fumble which, had it not, could’ve been carried further.

Playing Tennessee in the season opener was never going to be pretty and Saturday wasn’t. Yet it exposed areas for improvement for the Wahoo coaching staff to hone in on and provided the opportunity for a collection of guys to impress on a big stage.