Following a tough start to the season against Tennessee, the Virginia Cavaliers (0-1, 0-0 ACC) faced the JMU Dukes (1-0, 0-0 SBC) in their home opener. It was an emotional game for the Hoos, their first home game since the unspeakable tragedy last year, in which three Virginia football players, Lavell Davis Jr., D’Sean Perry, and Devin Chandler, lost their lives in a shooting on Grounds. The University of Virginia held a pregame ceremony to honor the players’ lives. To further commemorate their legacy, the Cavs placed their numbers – 1, 15, 41, on the south side of the stadium and painted their names in the endzone.
The home opener also presented an opportunity for the Hoos to evaluate their future talent. The first-year quarterback, Anthony Colandrea, started his first career game due to Monmouth transfer Tony Muskett suffering a shoulder injury in the previous game against Tennessee.
It was a disastrous start for the Hoos. After the opening kickoff, JMU marched down the field with quarterback Jordan McCloud finding receivers Phoenix Sproles and Taji Hudson for chunk plays. Near the goal line, the Dukes ran a clever trick play; Jordan threw a lateral to the receiver Hudson who tossed it to Sproles for an easy touchdown.
The Hoos seemed ready to respond when Perris Jones broke away for a 76-yard rushing touchdown, but it was called back for holding. Backed up in their own territory, Virginia was forced to punt. The Dukes capitalized again by blocking the punt, scooping it, and scoring, giving them an early 14-0 lead.
The first-year quarterback quickly found a rhythm. On the following drive, Coleandra hit receiver Malik Washington in stride for a massive 63-yard touchdown, giving the Hoos some much-needed life.
After the Dukes kicked a field goal giving them a 17-7 lead, the momentum swung to the Hoos who would score 21 unanswered points. The Virginia defense stopped the run and limited JMU’s powerful passing attack, forcing 5 consecutive punts and a turnover on downs. Before the half, Coleandra found several of his receivers to position the Hoos in the red zone. At the 4, Mike Hollins, one of the students who survived the shooting, punched it in for Virginia, making the score 17-14 at halftime.
In the 3rd quarter, the Cavs offense began to click as they scored three touchdowns. On the first play of the second half, Coleandra rolled out of the pocket and hit the speedster running back Kobe Pace on the run for a 75-yard touchdown. Despite throwing a costly interception, Colandra bounced back and found Perris Jones for a 60-yard pass. At the end of the third quarter, the Cavs had a commanding 35-24 lead over the Dukes.
With 12:06 left in the 4th quarter, rain delayed the game. When play resumed, Virginia lost their spark. The defense struggled to contain running backs Latrele Palmer and Ty Son Lawton who put the Dukes within one score. JMU forced another punt, giving them a chance to score a touchdown to take the lead with 3:27 left in the game. A combination of costly penalties and effective passes allowed the Dukes to score a touchdown, giving them the lead.
However, the Hoos nearly came back. When JMU went for 2, the Cavs had an opportunity to intercept the pass on the conversion and possibly return it for 2 points, which would have given them the lead. Down 36-35, with 55 seconds left, Colandrea and the Hoos had one last chance to get into field goal range. After a holding call and several incompletions, the Hoos ran a Hail Mary on 4th & 20. Colandrea missed an open receiver which could have positioned Virginia for a touchdown or game-winning kick.
Despite the heartbreaking loss, there were many bright spots for Virginia fans. First-year quarterback Colandrea had a phenomenal debut, throwing for 377 yards, two touchdowns, one interception, and completing 20-26 passes for a 77 completion percentage. Colandrea showed his mobility; he was able to extend plays by getting out of the pocket. Additionally, Virginia’s offensive looked explosive with three 60+ yard plays, more than they had all of last season combined.
Nevertheless, JMU won the battle in the trenches. The Dukes rushed for 167 yards at a clip of 4.9 yards per carry while the Hoos accumulated only 18 net rushing yards on 35 carries. The Virginia pass rush mustered only one sack and allowed McCloud plenty of time to find his receivers.
On Friday, the Cavs take on the Maryland Terrapins (2-0), led by Taulia Tagovailoa in College Park, Maryland. To compete against the Terps, Virginia must find ways to generate pressure against the QB to limit the passing game. Offensively, the Hoos should get their playmakers the ball in space to go for big plays. Most importantly, the offensive line must create holes for the run game and give Colandrea time in the pocket. The game will be broadcast on Fox Sports 1 at 7 p.m. for Virginia fans to tune in.