'They fought and they battled': Elliott proud of Cavs in defeat

Mike Hollins leads Virginia out of the tunnel for its opener (0:22)

Mike Hollins, a survivor of the tragic Virginia shooting, leads the Cavaliers out of the tunnel pregame vs. Tennessee. (0:22)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Virginia coach Tony Elliott knows what the final box score says: Tennessee 49, Virginia 13.

But he also knows getting to Saturday was a triumph in itself for his team. Virginia played a game Saturday for the first time in 294 days, following the deaths of Devin Chandler, Lavel Davis Jr. and D'Sean Perry, who were shot and killed last November on a charter bus after returning home from a class field trip.

Vowing to play in their honor, Elliott said that just before the game began, he "was at peace knowing that the victory had already been won.

"You've got to remember -- every day they walk out on that field, they're reminded," Elliott continued. "Every day they walk off that field, they're reminded. Every day they go to class on Grounds, they're reminded. Every day they're reminded of what happened, and not everybody is done grieving or healing. The good thing was we were able to get to this point, and even though the outcome didn't go the way that we wanted it to go, the guys can have confidence knowing that, 'You know what? I can do it.'"

There were physical reminders pregame. Kicker Will Bettridge, who is wearing Perry's No. 41 this season, wore custom-painted shoes honoring Perry as he walked from the bus into the stadium. Tennessee placed decals on its own helmets with the numbers Chandler, Davis and Perry wore: 1, 15 and 41.

There was also a moment of silence after both teams cleared the field following pregame warmups. Cheerleaders from Tennessee and Virginia walked onto the field and placed flowers on the 1-, 15- and 41-yard lines as the sold-out and Tennessee-heavy crowd watched in silence and a photo of the three players was displayed on the video board.

Then, as Virginia emerged from the locker room, running back Mike Hollins came out in front, holding the school flag.

Hollins survived the shooting and made his return to the field on Virginia's third play of the game. Elliott described Hollins as a "walking miracle."

"Back in November, we had no idea what his life was going to look like, much less that he was going to be able to run out with the flag today and be able to play and be a significant part of our game plan," Elliott said. "You're very fortunate in life if you're able to witness a miracle. For us, we've all been blessed because he is a walking miracle."

The Cavaliers walked in silence down the tunnel, their eyes focused ahead. As they gathered together before taking the field, they started jumping up and down. The moment had come.

"I thought the guys did a great job every day to get to this point," Elliott said. "It's hard to quantify and put into words just everything that they've had to go through, and I thought the guys showed up and had a really good spirit about them, great energy, and I thought they played extremely hard. They fought and they battled, and that's all you can ask of these guys.

"Just to see them get a chance to play football was the victory for me. I know ultimately we will be judged by what the scoreboard says, but internally as a program, I couldn't be more proud. What we had to endure is unprecedented, and still it's hard to put into words and wrap your head around it. For these guys to be able to make the decision to come back to the University of Virginia, that was a tough decision, to come back and fight."

Virginia had its hands full with a Tennessee team that had the advantage on both the offensive and defensive lines. The Cavaliers struggled on offense in the first half, with just two first downs and 48 total yards, but trailed only 14-3 at halftime.

"We came out with a lot of energy. There were a lot of challenges, but we came out hard, we showed a lot of effort today, so in that aspect I think we came out the right way," Virginia safety Jonas Sanker said.

The Cavaliers' inability to sustain drives in the third quarter wore out their defense and allowed Tennessee to put the game out of reach before Virginia scored its lone touchdown of the game late in the third quarter.

Early in the fourth quarter, starting quarterback Tony Muskett injured his shoulder on a sack and did not return. True freshman Anthony Colandrea replaced him. Elliott said Muskett would undergo further evaluation in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Virginia reserve defensive tackle Olasunkonmi Agunloye injured both his knees celebrating a fumble recovery on the sideline. Though Elliott did not have the full extent of the injuries, he described them as "significant."

Having endured everything they did both on and off the field Saturday, the entire Virginia football team gathered together arm in arm in front of the section filled with parents and friends and sang the alma mater shortly after the game ended.

The team hosts James Madison next week in what will be another emotional game, as the athletic department plans to honor the families of Chandler, Davis and Perry. Elliott specifically mentioned what he saw from the players in the locker room after the loss as something to take with them headed into next week.

"To see their resilience and to see them in a locker room after this game, still standing together, still believing in the best for the season, the best for the future, because they believe in each other and that's what it took," Elliott said. "I'm just extremely proud of the players, the staff, the administration and all those that are close to the program that support us through this time."