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Five takeaways from Virginia football’s heartbreaking loss to JMU

What we learned from an exciting but extremely frustrating contest.

James Madison v Virginia Photo by Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images

In typical fashion, the Virginia Cavaliers football team lost a heartbreaker to the James Madison Dukes, 36-35. UVA had control of the game in the fourth quarter with a 35-24 lead before a lightning delay paused play for over an hour. JMU came storming out of the break, scoring a pair of touchdowns to deal Tony Elliott’s team a back-breaking defeat in its 2023 home opener.

With the loss, we have five takeaways for the Virginia program moving forward.

Virginia loses its chance to reinvigorate the program and fanbase

This would’ve been a major win. The way the game seemed to be going in the third quarter had the ‘Hoos positioned to pick up a win that transcended the result, that brought a level of excitement back for fans, and that built momentum for the future of the program in significant fashion.

But, as Virginia football fans have become far too accustomed to over the years, that opportunity was washed away with the rain that came pouring down on the David A. Harrison III Field.

That’s not to say that Elliott can’t build this program to be successful or that this 2023 team can’t rebound and still find success despite an 0-2 start. But this result sure makes doing that a more difficult task.

Anthony Colandrea is the real deal

Despite the loss and some rookie moments here and there, true freshman quarterback Anthony Colandrea absolutely balled out for the ‘Hoos today. He completed 76.9% of his passes on the afternoon with 20 completions on 26 attempts for a whopping 377 yards and two touchdowns.

Colandrea’s performance went beyond the numbers. His composure in the pocket when facing pressure belied his lack of experience, and the downfield reads that he made were next level. He’s mobile in the pocket and can limit the impact of UVA’s less-than-perfect pass protection. Colandrea also keeps his eyes downfield even when eluding pressure. A number of UVA’s biggest gains came after he bounced outside or stepped up into the pocket.

He wasn’t perfect, evidenced by when he locked his eyes on Malik Washington on a trail wheel route and the Dukes read him and picked the ball off. At times he was a bit chaotic in the pocket, but that comes with the territory of the plays he can make when things break down.

Moving forward, Tony Elliott said postgame that Muskett will still be UVA’s starter, and that (while awaiting word from the doctors) he suspects Muskett will be back on Friday against Maryland. That’s fine, for now. Muskett is the more experienced player and he has real arm talent.

But Colandrea looks very much like the future of the program, and he deserves opportunity. If Muskett lights up defenses when he’s back, then great. The ‘Hoos would have their guy for now and would allow Colandrea to learn behind him. But if Muskett can’t produce or struggles whatsoever, the true freshman showed enough today that he deserves the opportunity to play.

The weather delay changed this game

This isn’t meant to excuse the loss. But the lightning delay in the fourth quarter fundamentally altered how this game played out. Not only did a major portion of Virginia fans leave the stadium and not come back when play resumed, but all of UVA’s momentum appeared to leave with them.

James Madison came out of the break firing on all cylinders offensively, dominating on the ground. They scored two touchdowns on two drives that combined to take just 6:04 off the clock. Meanwhile, UVA came out flat, overcommitted to running the ball when it wasn’t working, and broke down on defense when in need of a single stop to win the game.

It’s hard to pin that turn of the tides on anybody in particular. But it does speak to the status of these two programs and the direction that each seems to be headed. JMU jumped at the opportunity to climb back into the game, and the Wahoos could seemingly not do much more than watch them do just that.

Virginia needs to stop trying to establish the run

I get that Tony Elliott and Offensive Coordinator Des Kitchings have long been a part of teams that rely on establishing the run to be successful on offense. In theory, sure, having a dominant running game is a big advantage for a team.

But, in execution and in theory for this UVA football team, remaining hellbent on establishing the run is a fruitless endeavor. The backs are good, and they showcased their ability as receivers and in the redzone in this game. But UVA’s offensive line is simply not good enough to justify 28 handoffs, especially when it didn’t work all game long.

The Virginia offense ran the ball 28 times for 48 yards, or 1.7 yards per carry. Anthony Colandrea threw the ball 26 times for 377 yards, good for 14.5 yards per attempt.

The four sacks that Colandrea took deserve to be attributed to the passing game as well. But those raw numbers speak to why UVA’s offensive coaching staff needs to be far more adaptable to both what’s working in game and what the strengths of the team are. The ‘Hoos scored 35 points in this one, so maybe these criticisms are nit-picky. But it was hard to see Virginia’s commitment to the run maintained even when it wasn’t working.

The good news is that UVA was on fire in the passing game even without the supposed value of establishing the run! This performance is something that Virginia’s receivers can build on, and Colandrea’s success throwing the ball in his first game suggests that either he’ll be able to build on that or that Muskett can deliver to a similar degree in this system.

UVA lost this game in the trenches

For the second consecutive week, UVA’s line was the offense’s biggest issue. Center Ty Furnish continues to snap the ball low in critical short yardage situations, and the Wahoo offense’s inability to get anything going in the run game was a result of the line’s struggles to prevent JMU’s defensive line from breaking into the backfield.

After Virginia had success running out of the pistol formation against the Vols, the offense largely went away from that against the Dukes. Running out of shotgun and going east-to-west too often made generating any true success on the ground even more difficult. The pressure that Colandrea was under throughout the game also limited the success that the ‘Hoos could have within their system, and it was particularly killer late in the game when they needed points.

Defensively, JMU’s success stunting UVA’s defensive line was critical in the comeback victory. The Dukes averaged 4.9 yards per carry, and the Wahoos only generated one sack and two quarterback hits. That’s simply not good enough and alludes to how hard it will be for Virginia to win games this season if they can’t get production in the trenches.

Now, UVA looks ahead to playing Maryland in College Park this Friday. Today provided some much needed optimism for this program, but the final result was such that said optimism isn’t the silver lining it should be.