Virginia football opened the season Saturday afternoon on the road against No. 12 Tennessee. The Cavaliers (0-1, 0-0 ACC) were hoping to pull off a huge upset, as they entered the game 28-point underdogs. The Volunteers (1-0, 0-0 SEC) boasted the nation’s top offense last year and were hoping to replicate their success with a new starting quarterback. Ultimately, the game was a one-sided affair as Virginia lost the game 49-13.
The opening drive did not go Virginia’s way. After a number of impressive runs by junior running back Jaylen Wright, the Cavaliers’ defense was put to the test when Tennessee reached the goal line. Virginia stepped up, holding the Volunteers off three times, and it seemed like they had forced a field goal attempt. However, Tennessee Coach Josh Heupel opted to keep his offense on the field.
Senior quarterback Joe Milton III dropped back and, after scanning all of his options, found sophomore running back Dylan Sampson behind the line of scrimmage. Sampson eluded the lone defender in his way and found the endzone, giving the Volunteers the early lead.
Virginia’s defense quickly found themselves back on the field after a swift three-and-out in the season’s opening offensive drive. Tennessee managed only short gains, leading to a critical fourth-and-one situation deep in their own territory. Heupel chose to take the risk and go for it. Senior running back Jabari Small attempted to run straight up the middle but was met by the Cavalier defensive front, who prevented him from picking up the first down. It was now up to the offense to capitalize on this momentum.
Early in the drive, it seemed as though the Cavaliers were going to find their rhythm. Virginia senior quarterback Tony Muskett connected with junior wide receiver Malachi Fields for a gain of 19 yards, positioning the offense at the nine-yard line. However, after three failed rushing attempts, Coach Tony Elliott reluctantly settled for a field goal attempt. Unfortunately, sophomore kicker Will Bettridge’s attempt missed wide right, leaving Virginia empty-handed.
As the first quarter came to a close, Virginia’s offense was struggling, having just endured their third three-and-out in four attempts. However, a glimmer of hope emerged when Tennessee senior defensive back Dee Williams fielded a punt. The pressure applied by the Cavaliers’ special teams unit caused Williams to fumble, and senior defensive tackle Olasunoanmi Agunloye pounced on the loose ball. Virginia, yet again, found itself with excellent field position. Sadly, the Cavaliers failed to capitalize and were forced to punt.
The Volunteers’ second touchdown came in the middle of the second quarter. Despite a false start and holding penalties, the Volunteers quickly moved down the field and found themselves in the goaline. Sampsonl powered the ball into the endzone, extending Tennessee’s lead to 14-0.
With just under five minutes left in the half, Muskett showcased why Elliott targeted him in the transfer portal. He picked up large gains to Fields and graduate student wide receiver Malik Washington, bringing Virginia within striking distance. The Cavaliers finally put points on the board when Bettridge drilled a 30-yard field goal, narrowing the score to 14-3.
Unfortunately, Virginia left too much time on the clock. After marching 75 yards down the field, Milton III rushed the ball into the endzone to wash away any momentum the Cavaliers might have had entering the locker room.
To keep their hopes alive, the Virginia defense needed to put a stop to Milton III and the rest of the Volunteers' offense. That did not happen and within five minutes the Cavaliers had conceded yet another touchdown. Milton III secured his second rushing touchdown of the game, and as Virginia looked up at the scoreboard, the game began to feel out of reach.
Following yet another Tennessee touchdown, the Cavaliers could have mailed it in, but instead, they led a drive marked by impressive rushing that ultimately resulted in their first touchdown of the season. Senior running back Kobe Pace, a recent addition from Clemson, picked up a remarkable 22-yard rush to move Virginia into the red zone. Two plays later, graduate student running back Perris Jones capped off the drive with a 17-yard rushing touchdown.
While the score was far from what the Cavaliers had hoped it would be, the biggest scare of the game occurred in the fourth quarter when Muskett clutched his left arm after a hard hit. He was forced to leave the game giving freshman quarterback Anthony Colandrea the opportunity to play his first collegiate snaps. The true freshman led the Cavaliers on a late field goal drive to tack on another three points to make the final score 49-13. Elliott commented on Muskett’s health in his post-game press conference.
“We know it's [Muskett’s] shoulder right now, but we don’t know the extent,” Elliott said of Muskett's injury. “We’ll get back some X-rays and find out.”
Regardless of the starting quarterback’s health, there was much to gain from playing a team at the level of the Volunteers. There was certainly room for improvement — the Cavalier offensive line is a work in progress, to put it kindly — but if Virginia wants to defy preseason expectations, they will need Muskett to make a quick and complete recovery.
Virginia will try and improve in what it hopes to be a much closer contest when it returns home Saturday to take on James Madison. Kickoff is set for noon, and the game will be televised on ESPNU.