Virginia takes a giant step backward in lopsided loss to Georgia Tech

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Photo by Michael Bruder

Nobody saw this one coming, not Virginia’s coaches, the players, not even the oddsmakers in Vegas, who were so impressed with the Cavaliers’ latest three-game trend that they made UVA a 2-point home favorite.

After the smoke had cleared from a 45-17 bushwhacking from visiting Georgia Tech, UVA’s coaches fell on their swords, taking the blame for a giant step backward on Saturday.

“It’s on me … I did not do a great job of having this football team prepared and ready to play at a high level,” Virginia coach Tony Elliott said.

“[Georgia Tech] got after my tail here today, so I’ll be the first one to take full responsibility,” said defensive coordinator John Rudzinski after the Yellow Jackets racked up 514 yards of offense against his squad.

Ditto for offensive coordinator Des Kitchings: “I hate to say it, I guess it just wasn’t our day … we felt like we’d come in here and win this game at home.”

Whether or not the coaches had their team prepared, didn’t have the proper gameplan, didn’t make good adjustments or whether the players didn’t execute, Kitchings was right. It just wasn’t the Cavaliers’ day. Starting quarterback Tony Muskett, who had brought some consistency to the UVA offense even though he was playing in pain with a busted shoulder, was knocked out of the game on the first series when he was sacked on an interception.

That left Virginia’s fate in the hands of freshman Anthony Colandrea, who hadn’t played in more than a month. Performing brilliantly at times, he still made critical freshman mistakes. During his previous three-game stint as UVA’s starter, Colandrea suffered careless turnovers as part of his learning experience, but still moved the chains. On Saturday, his offense converted only 3 of 12 third-down opportunities.

It wasn’t Colandrea that cost the Cavaliers the game. Virginia’s improved running game could hardly budge against the nation’s next-to-worst run defense, putting up a measley 119 yards on the ground. UVA’s defense stunk up the joint, giving up 305 yards to Tech’s ground attack, 17 first downs rushing and five rushing touchdowns.

The Jackets put up the most yards against Virginia (514) since BYU posted more than 700 in 2021. Like explosive plays? Tech had 200 of its 305 rushing yards on only nine plays.

Virginia certainly knew what was at stake. As soon as the Cavaliers reported for practice last Monday, Elliott smacked them in the face with the challenge of winning the program’s first home ACC game in the short Elliott era. They saw what Georgia Tech did to North Carolina the week before. There was no reason for this football team not to be ready to play.

The Yellow Jackets, now 5-4 overall and 4-2 in the conference, didn’t have such issues.

“I thought coming into the game [Virginia] was playing as good of football as anybody in the conference, and for our guys to come out in that second half after getting the lead and then continue to put the pedal down …” Tech coach Brent Key said. “[Virginia] had been doing a good job against the run, but we were able to control the line of scrimmage on both sides.”

Key, who played at Georgia Tech and had been an assistant there before taking over the program in the middle of last season, was well aware of the Yellow Jackets’ struggles in Charlottesville. Tech had won only twice at Scott Stadium since 1990, the last win coming in 2013.

“A tough place for us to play,” Key said. “My first career win here, but a lot of years trying.”

Meanwhile, Virginia regressed, partly with Muskett injured quickly. With an early prognosis of a high-ankle sprain, Virginia’s starter watched the rest of the game from the sidelines, wearing a boot on his right leg. Elliott said it was too early to know if Muskett will be available for the short-week turnaround, a trip to 8-1 Louisville on Thursday.

The Cavaliers knew it was a possibility that Muskett could go down and had kept Colandrea prepared, just in case. Colandrea said he prepares every week as if he’s going to play, from film study on Sunday to considerable reps in practice. But there’s nothing like live game action, the speed of the game, something he had missed since facing NC State on Sept. 22.

Virginia’s plan was to keep Colandrea sidelined for the rest of the season if possible, hoping to redshirt him, but Elliott knew that if Muskett, playing in pain with a bum shoulder, couldn’t answer the bell, he had no choice but to burn Colandrea’s redshirt.

The freshman said after Saturday’s game, his fifth game this season, that he was OK with it all, that he will do whatever is necessary to help the team.

Colandrea, knowing there’s a walk-on with little experience as his backup, still put himself at risk on running plays in the game. Leading the team in rushing against the Jackets, the freshman said he has to play smarter in the future if he remains as starter.

Two other starters didn’t finish the game, running back Mike Hollins (neck) and sensational freshman linebacker Kam Robinson (knee). Elliott said he wouldn’t know their status for Louisville until Sunday or Monday.

Saturday was a golden opportunity for Virginia to build momentum for a strong November finish, but after Georgia Tech stacked up a 21-point second quarter, the Cavaliers were reduced to a mostly one-dimensional team and forced to play catch-up through the air.

Standing at 2-7, UVA can still salvage something this season, with Duke and Virginia Tech closing out the season at Scott, following the visit to Louisville.

“We’re owning this one, taking accountability for it,” Elliott said. “It’s part of the growth process. It’s a part of football.”