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Virginia football relinquishes late lead in 36-35 loss to James Madison

In their first home game since the Nov. 13 tragedy on Saturday, the Cavaliers fought hard in honor of their fallen teammates despite a devastating loss

<p>Senior running back Mike Hollins, who was injured in the shooting, scored two touchdowns Saturday.</p>

Senior running back Mike Hollins, who was injured in the shooting, scored two touchdowns Saturday.

In the team’s first home game of the season, Virginia found itself with a lead early in the fourth quarter against in-state rival James Madison. But after a lengthy weather delay drained the majority of the energy out of the stadium, the Cavaliers (0-2, 0-0 ACC) could not stop the Dukes (2-0, 0-0 Sun Belt) from coming back to win 36-35 by scoring a touchdown with just under one minute remaining.

Despite some expecting James Madison fans to occupy a large percentage of seats, roughly 70 percent of Scott Stadium wore Virginia orange and blue Saturday. The Cavaliers battled with the strength of a crowd totaling over 55 thousand in support of their three fallen heroes. After a powerful pregame ceremony unveiling a memorial, graduate student running back Mike Hollins was the sole captain for Virginia at the coin toss. Alongside Hollins, true freshman quarterback Anthony Colandrea had a performance for the ages in place of the injured Tony Muskett against the Dukes. 

With a ferocious roar in the stands, sixth year defensive end Kam Butler downed James Madison running back Kaelon Black for a loss of one yard on the first snap. The Cavaliers dominated against the run early, but struggled to make tackles, including senior cornerback Sam Westfall allowing a 32-yard gain. Virginia then surrendered a touchdown on the first drive via a creative wide receiver pass despite showing promise against more typical plays. 

On the first play of the game for Virginia’s offense, sixth year running back Perris Jones ran for an electrifying 74-yard gain, only for it to be negated by a questionable holding penalty. Another questionable holding call and a low snap from junior Ty Furnish extinguished the Cavalier drive. A blocked punt returned for a touchdown gave James Madison a 14-0 lead, and a close contest briefly became a nightmare start for Virginia.

Soon after however, Colandrea tossed a 63-yard touchdown to graduate student wide receiver Malik Washington on his first passing attempt of the afternoon, which also served as Colandrea’s first career touchdown. A perfectly run wheel route by Washington and an accurate pass by Colandrea cut the early deficit to one possession. 

The explosive plays continued, as James Madison senior quarterback Jordan McCloud threw a 40-yard pass.  The Cavalier defense was then able to rebound and only give up a field goal inside the Virginia 20-yard line. Colandrea later led the Cavaliers to roughly midfield before the right side of the offensive line allowed multiple Dukes to sack the quarterback and end the first quarter. 

A much needed three-and-out promptly gave the football back to the Virginia offense at the start of the second quarter, only for the Cavaliers to also punt without a first down. 

Both teams traded a couple quick drives as each defense began to settle in. Colandrea had senior wide receiver Demick Starling open for a deep touchdown, but both were unable to connect. Colandrea responded with a trio of first down throws, thriving with a more up-tempo offensive philosophy. Hollins scored his first touchdown of 2023 soon after to make it a 17-14 game going into halftime. 

On the first play from scrimmage of the second half, Colandrea threw a 75-yard touchdown to senior running back Kobe Pace to take a 21-17 lead. In a game where Virginia trailed 14-0 early, its offense seemingly had an answer for the Dukes defense, while simultaneously doing just enough on defense to prevent James Madison from lighting up the scoreboard.

Despite Colandrea’s massive success, a turning point of the game came from the Virginia defense early in the third quarter.  The Dukes elected to attempt a fourth down conversion from their own 27-yard line, and the Cavaliers stopped them to set up their offense in outstanding to score. After what should have been a targeting penalty against James Madison, Pace scored another touchdown — this time on the ground — to increase the lead to double digits. 

Another forced three-and-out by the Cavalier defense gave Virginia strong momentum, but Colandrea threw his first career interception off of a highlight defensive play by the Dukes. Back on defense, sixth year cornerback Coen King broke up consecutive passes — while sixth year cornerback Tayvonn Kyle broke up another pass to force a James Madison punt. 

Poor tackling by the Cavalier defense allowed the Dukes to cut Virginia’s lead to 28-24, but the Cavalier offense responded with a 60 yard reception by Jones. A second touchdown for Hollins put Virginia up 35-24 at the end of the third quarter. 

A weather delay that lasted over an hour due to lightning and rain became the largest turning point in the game. Play resumed with 12 minutes left in the game, and tackling issues continued for the Cavaliers as they let the Dukes run rampant on the ground which eventually resulted in a touchdown to shorten Virginia’s lead to 35-30. 

James Madison got the ball back and it was set up in prime field position due to a pass interference penalty. The game was on the line with the Cavalier defense against the Duke offense, and Black scored relatively unobstructed to take a 36-35 lead.

After a failed two-point conversion, the Cavaliers still had the opportunity to score, but the offensive line allowed a costly sack on the final drive. A missed connection on fourth down with senior wide receiver Demick Starling ended the game with a Virginia loss.

Despite porous offensive line play throughout the entire contest along with ill-timed missed tackles and a lack of discipline in multiple phases, many individual players had outstanding games. Colandrea may have created a starting quarterback competition with his dynamic debut, and Washington had over 100 receiving yards. 

More importantly than the result at Scott Stadium, Virginia football fought admirably in its return to Charlottesville to honor Davis Jr., Chandler and Perry. The Cavaliers can identify several positives with the effort they put forth on Saturday. Virginia takes the field next at Maryland Friday. The game is scheduled to kick off at 7 p.m. and will be televised on Fox Sports 1.