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Virginia football returns to Scott Stadium for an intriguing Friday night thriller against NC State

Former U.Va. quarterback Brennan Armstrong makes his return to Charlottesville for a crucial conference clash

<p>The Cavaliers will need a solid performance from the defense to stop the high-flying Wolfpack offense, led by the former Virginia offensive coordinator Robert Anae.</p>

The Cavaliers will need a solid performance from the defense to stop the high-flying Wolfpack offense, led by the former Virginia offensive coordinator Robert Anae.

Virginia football has not had an ideal start to the 2023 season. Even though Virginia is winless three games into the campaign, the Cavaliers (0-3, 0-0 ACC) have still been able to hold a reasonable lead in multiple games. The opponent this week is an interesting one, as Virginia has not played NC State since 2020, despite both being in the Atlantic Coast Conference. However, the Wolfpack (2-1, 0-0 ACC) have some very familiar faces. In addition to Armstrong, they now employ former Virginia offensive coordinator Robert Anae and former offensive line coach Garrett Tujague. ESPN analytics favor the Wolfpack by 77.5 percent — but the Cavaliers have a few opportunities to play hard and cover the nine and a half point spread.

Key matchups

Virginia’s quarterback versus NC State defense

While it may seem rather obvious, an important matchup will be the leader of the Cavalier offense against the menacing Wolfpack defense. Whether or not senior Tony Muskett takes the lead or true freshman Anthony Colandrea is under center again, the quarterback must be able to command the offense for a full 60 minutes without turnovers. Muskett would be preferable due to his elite accuracy and tendency to limit turnovers. A successful outing of at least four touchdowns without a turnover would go a long way to earning the first Cavalier victory of 2023. The quarterback must be able to either score or push the opposing offense into undesirable field position on nearly every drive. Significant help comes in the form of wide receiver duo of senior Malik Washington and junior Malachi Fields, with 19 and 18 respective receptions so far —- which places them first and second in the ACC. The offense needs to continue relying on them while also finding more options for a supporting cast to assist the quarterback. Coach Tony Elliott specified one position group in particular who needs to step up against the Wolfpack.

“We need more production from the tight ends,” Elliott said. “We have had opportunities, we just need to take advantage of them.” 

The NC State defense is led by Payton Wilson, a consistent tackler that limits big plays against both the run game and passing attack. Cornerback Aydan White patrols the defensive backfield and is coming off of a 2022 season highlighted by four interceptions. The Cavalier quarterback must know where the fearsome duo is on the field at all times. 

Virginia defense versus Armstrong

On the other side, the Cavalier defense must disrupt Armstrong’s dual threat ability as a runner and deep passer. Armstrong will take off for large gains on the ground if his receivers are not open — the Virginia linebackers must watch him carefully and stop the run. As for his deep passes, the Cavaliers cannot surrender 20 plus yard gains like they have so far this season. The defense will have to force NC State’s offense to make difficult plays on third downs instead of giving up easy yards through the air on drives that take less than 10 plays to score. Playing deeper coverage to keep the action in front of them could help. If they can prevent large yardage while taking away Armstrong’s scrambles, this game could certainly go in Virginia’s favor. The Wolfpack have scored more than 25 points just once in their first three games, creating an important opportunity for the Cavalier defense. 

“To beat a team like that, you have to bring it from the jump,” junior safety Jonas Sanker said. “We’re going to try to [be] maintaining that edge and pressure the whole game.”

Keys to victory

Win the fourth quarter

The Cavaliers have surrendered an average of 15.6 points per fourth quarter so far, which will not bode well against ACC opponents that can take command of a game on just one play. If Virginia can outscore its opposition in the final quarter, tough losses may start to turn into impactful wins. They have been outscored 47-3 in fourth quarters this season. Regardless of the final score, fighting hard in the final 15 minutes displays the critical traits that Elliott’s developing program needs to have. Building up lengthy scoring drives of more than six minutes on offense to help give the Cavalier defense more rest could be a solution. In addition, the defense has struggled with untimely missed tackles, which Elliott mentioned in a media appearance. 

“We just gotta get guys on the ground,” Elliott said. “We’ve had several first contacts in the backfield, and we don’t get the guy on the ground and the next thing you know, it’s a positive gain.”

No interceptions

Virginia let a close game at Maryland slip away in the fourth quarter due to four straight turnovers. Punts give the defense a fighting chance deep in opposing team territory, but interceptions usually give an opposing offense prime field position. The Cavalier quarterback needs to score in bunches while also taking care of the football. Colandrea and Muskett have been under constant pressure due to poor offensive line play, but there are several options to alleviate the issue —- including quicker passes. It is time for Elliott and offensive coordinator Des Kitchings to get creative and rely on Virginia’s elite athleticism. 

Respectable offensive line play

Virginia’s offensive line has been one of the worst nationally to begin 2023. The Cavaliers have surrendered multiple sacks in each game so far, including four against both Tennessee and James Madison — most of which came on third downs. Junior center Ty Furnish has also given up an individual total of four penalties and numerous low or high snaps, costing the offense in crucial situations. He will move to right guard Friday, with senior Brian Stevens getting an opportunity at center. NC State is known for a hyper-aggressive defensive front, meaning the Virginia offensive line absolutely must begin to live up to expectations associated with their high level of talent. If they can keep the quarterback upright, the Cavaliers could certainly turn this game into a very close matchup. Despite a rough start, improvement is on the horizon.

We’re definitely starting to feel more confident [with the offensive line],” Elliott said. “Hopefully we’ll take another step with the guys up front.” 

Despite dealing with numerous injuries on defense along with a shuffling offensive line and quarterback uncertainty, Virginia has clearly displayed promise in the 2023 campaign. However, there are still some statistical doubts — namely in the empty win column. The 7:30 p.m. Friday night contest on ESPN is a must win to avoid another disastrous season. The Cavaliers will look to turn their season around in their first Friday night home game since 2021. 

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