The Virginia Cavaliers opened their football season yesterday against the number 12-ranked Tennessee Volunteers. The Volunteers are coming off of a historic 2022 season, which saw them climb to number one overall, and beat SEC rival Alabama. UVA continues to search for new life in their football program, bringing on former Clemson Offensive Coordinator Tony Elliot as Head Coach last year and a 4th-year transfer from Monmouth Tony Muskett in the QB position.
Both teams were looking for a strong start to the season. Tennessee would find their legs right away converting on their first drive of the season, marching down 62 yards in just under 3 minutes. Joe Milton connected with Dylan Sampson for a 9-yard touchdown reception. The Cavaliers were hoping for the same kind of offensive production on the other side of the football but would not find it. The Volunteer defense would limit Virginia to just 5 yards and a three-and-out in that first drive.
Tennessee’s defensive line plagued the Cavalier offense all day with heavy rushes and hard pressure on Muskett. The run game in the first half for Virginia was not an option and Muskett continually had to make quick throws to avoid the pass rush. On the other side of the ball, the Vols offense played with extreme hurry-up, a trademark feature of their offense.
The UVA defense began to find a little rhythm after going down 7 to nothing. The defense held strong, able to force the Vols into a 4th and 1 situation. The Vols took a chance and went for it but good line work by the Cavalier defense stopped Tennessee and forced a turnover on downs.
Virginia now had a chance to get themselves onto the scoresheet and into the game. Starting from about the Tennessee 40 they had great field position. Tony Muskett found wide receiver Fields for a big gain and took UVA down into red zone territory. 1st and goal turned to 3rd and goal very quickly. The Volunteers stood strong and stopped UVA and made them try and kick a field goal. Second-year kicker Will Bettridge had a 28-yard attempt but missed the uprights to the right.
The rest of the first quarter would continue fairly evenly and back and forth. Joe Milton did not seem to have his best arm yet, missing a couple of deep ball throws that would have converted to easy scores for Tennessee. The UVA defense had some success forcing some three-and-outs and keeping the Vols off of the scoreboard. The Cavaliers would show some more positive signs on special teams. After a good punt by 4th-year Daniel Sparks, who punted very well all game, the Cavaliers forced a fumble.
Tennessee fought back in the second quarter on both sides of the football. Joe Milton handed off to Dylan Sampson for his first rushing touchdown of the season. The Volunteer defense put the UVA offensive line into shambles. The pass rush and run defense stalled Virginia’s offense almost to a halt. Virginia would get a field goal before the half was over, but Joe Milton snuck his way into the endzone from the 1-yard line for a third Tennessee touchdown.
After all was said and done the score was 21 – 3 at halftime. While disappointing for many UVA fans this was about what was to be expected in this matchup.
The second half did not bode much better for the Cavaliers. Tennessee continued to generate productively on offense and special teams, playing solid complimentary football. The punt return unit for the Volunteers shined bright picking up multiple 30+ yard returns.
The Cavaliers did have one bright spot at the end of the third quarter. While anything was going to be too little too late UVA was able to march downfield and score a touchdown. The most obvious difference on this drive was the work being done by the offensive line. The line was much stronger, allowing UVA to run the football. Lead running back Perris Jones would be the one to find the endzone and put a score on the board.
The game would end with a final score of Tennessee 49 to Virginia 13. The hurry-up offense of Tennessee took a harsh toll on the Virginia defense, and the heavy Volunteer pass rush proved to be very difficult to counter and hold off.
The Cavaliers will face out-of-conference Sun Belt opponent, James Madison next Saturday at Scott Stadium. Virginia needs to be stronger on the offensive line and better in man-to-man coverage if they want to beat JMU. JMU is a capable program with decent playbooks on both sides of the football. Saturday will prove to be UVA’s first real test to see if they can compete against a more evenly-matched opponent. Kickoff is at noon on Saturday, September 9th. It will air on ESPNU.