Colandrea’s wild ride gave Virginia a chance Saturday, and maybe for the future

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Photo by Michael Bruder

With starting quarterback Tony Muskett still nursing a shoulder injury from last week’s loss at Tennessee, the Virginia offensive coaches braced themselves for a wild ride with true freshman Anthony Colandrea in Saturday’s emotional home opener against cross-mountain rival James Madison University.

Colandrea, a golden-armed passer from the high school football hotbed of St. Pete, Florida, played beyond his years at times during the thriller-diller, last-minute, 36-35 loss to JMU. Those were the good parts.

At other junctures, he played like a freshman, made freshman mistakes and made his coaches reach for the Pepto on more than one occasion. Still, Colandrea did some growing up Saturday, gave Wahoo fans some hope for the future and something to cheer about for most of the afternoon.

“I don’t have any hair … if I did, I might be pulling my hair out as he’s running around,” said UVA offensive coordinator Des Kitchings after the game. “He’s going to make some wild plays.”

Like the wild play with less than two minutes left in the third quarter when the freshman took the shotgun snap, scrambled around when his protection broke down and then spotted running back Perris Jones wide open and quickly delivered a strike. Jones, changing directions, raced 60 yards to the JMU 12 and two plays later, Mike Hollins vaulted into the end zone for his second rushing touchdown of the day to give UVA a 35-24 lead.

The play gave the Cavaliers a momentum swing that would take an hour-long storm delay to stop. Only minutes later, both teams were forced to the locker rooms to wait out the storm.

Most of the 56,000-plus fans didn’t come back. Neither did Virginia’s offense — or defense for that matter — as JMU dominated the rest of the way.

For the record, the 5-foot-11, 180-pound Colandrea threw for 377 yards and two touchdowns, both single-game UVA freshman records. His 75-yard scoring strike to running back Kobe Pace on the opening play of the second half was the longest ever by a UVA freshman quarterback.

He was 20 for 26 passing and he made three passes for 60 or more yards. Virginia had only two of those all of last season.

“That was something I had imagined ever since I was a little kid,” Colandrea said after the game, his first collegiate start. “Starting today was just a huge blessing.”

While the wild ride included big plays, explosive plays, the kinds that make offensive coaches froth at the mouth for more and keep opposing defensive coaches up at night, the wild side also featured harrowing moments.

After leading the Cavaliers on back-to-back scoring marches and a 28-17 lead to begin the third quarter, and moving down the field again with a 25-yard dart to Malik Washington to the JMU 48, Colandrea threw his first college interception midway through the period. Though JMU couldn’t capitalize, it slowed UVA’s momentum.

Had Virginia scored there, it might have broken the Dukes’ will.

Instead, Colandrea made the big play to Jones later in the quarter.

He had hoped to pull off some more magic when the Cavaliers had possession after the delay. After three pass completions, Virginia suddenly went away from the throwing game around midfield and called four-straight running plays that netted seven yards, ending in a punt with 3:36 to play.

By the time UVA got the ball back for a last-ditch effort, JMU had scored again to take a 36-35 lead with 55 seconds to go.

Colandrea was sacked for a 10-yard loss on first down, threw incomplete out of bounds to Washington, had his third-down pass attempt batted down with 33 seconds left and threw a Hail Mary on fourth-and-20 to speedster Demick Starling that sailed over the wide receiver’s head. Starling, who normally can’t be overthrown because of his speed, had gotten behind a JMU defender deep down the field.

“I feel like I should’ve given him a chance to get a PI (pass interference call),” the freshman said of the overthrow.

Even though Virginia had only a minute to pull off the comeback at the end, Colandrea was confident.

“Yeah, 100 percent, I thought we could have gone out there and scored,” he said. “I made little mistakes. I made freshman mistakes I shouldn’t make.”

All part of the maturation of a quarterback who said he made huge strides as an early enrollee last January, who learned from his mistakes in spring practice, which made him better-prepared to become Muskett’s backup and temporary replacement.

Temporary because Coach Tony Elliott shares the philosophy of many head football coaches who don’t believe starters should lose their job because of an injury. Such is the case with Muskett and Colandrea.

“My approach is that you don’t lose your job for an injury,” Elliott confirmed in his postgame. “But it gives us a tremendous amount of confidence in Colandrea.”

Elliott said he will assess Muskett’s health this week as Virginia prepares for a Friday-night game at Maryland, and anticipates the starter will be ready to go. Muskett was available in an “emergency situation” Saturday.

Colandrea pushed Muskett in training camp and Elliott believes competition is a good thing for both his quarterbacks.

“It’s a long football season and we’re going to play some physical games, so we’re going to need both of them,” the coach said.

Colandrea has no problem with that conclusion.

“That’s Coach Elliott’s decision,” the freshman said.

Saturday’s experience helped him tremendously for the next time he’ll be called upon.

“It’s going help a lot, even if I get in next week or whenever it is,” Colandrea said.

His confidence has grown throughout training camp and the first couple of weeks of preparation for the Cavaliers’ first two games because UVA’s defense has been testing him and putting him in situations where he could learn and develop.

Saturday was fun, living his dream of starting at a Power 5 school after getting mostly Group of 5 offers out of high school. Playing well with his parents, relatives and girlfriend in the crowd was just a bonus.

Winning the hearts of Virginia fans with his performance — many of which would have him starting from here on out if it was a popular vote — can only boost his confidence.

It’s a wild ride they would buy a ticket for.