A Virginia offense that entered Saturday’s game against N.C. State ranked No. 3 in the ACC in total offense – averaging 433.8 yards per game – turned in the lowest offensive output of the Mike London era. The Cavaliers managed 249 total yards against an injury-depleted Wolfpack defense. They also tallied four turnovers.
Consequently, Virginia dropped a game against one the weakest opponents remaining on its schedule. N.C. State won, 28-14, and now the Cavaliers have a steep road to climb if they hope to play in a bowl game come December. Virginia stands at 4-3 and needs two more wins to become bowl eligible. The Cavaliers still have a home date against Duke on tap. But their four other remaining opponents will pose significant challenges.
Blame should not be placed entirely on the offense for Saturday’s loss, though perhaps a majority of it should. The Virginia defense allowed N.C. State quarterback Mike Glennon to pass for 231 yards and three touchdowns, revealing that perhaps the Cavaliers pass defense isn’t as stout as its rankings entering Saturday’s contest suggested.
“We were trying so hard,” true freshman quarterback David Watford said. “But they were just more prepared than we were.”
Defense. It wasn’t as stellar an overall performance as the Cavaliers defense turned in a week earlier against Georgia Tech, but Virginia remained pretty sturdy for the most part. The pass defense, as we’ve already mentioned, didn’t quite live up to its billing, but it wasn’t exactly porous, either. One of the Cavaliers’ goals each game is to allow fewer than 225 passing yards per game. So they didn’t reach that object Saturday (231 passing yards allowed), but they didn’t miss it by much. Also, Virginia forced two second-half turnovers. Safeties Rodney McLeod and Corey Mosley each recorded their first interceptions of the season. It’s worth noting that of the 28 points N.C. State posted Saturday, seven came on an interception return. Another seven came after a Virginia interception gave the Wolfpack the ball at the Virginia 33-yard line.
Kickoff returns. Virginia’s average starting field position Saturday was its own 37-yard line. Granted, that wasn’t entirely due to the Cavaliers kickoff returns, but true freshman returner Darius Jennings and redshirt freshman tailback Khalek Shepherd certainly did their part. N.C. State was called for false start on the opening kickoff, which Jennings had returned to the Virginia 29-yard line. On the re-kick, Shepherd returned the ball 48 yards to midfield. Shepherd and Jennings combined to average 30.8 yards per kickoff return Saturday. The Cavaliers entered the game averaging 21.3 yards per kickoff return.
Kris Burd and Tim Smith. Burd tallied three receptions for 44 yards Saturday, which moved him into fourth place on the program’s all-time receptions list with 130 and into seventh place on the program’s all-time receiving yards list with 1,724. Smith caught two passes for 66 yards. His 60-yard touchdown reception late in the third quarter played a large role in keeping the Cavaliers in the game a little while longer. However, both Smith and Burd could have caught passes thrown by Watford that ended up being intercepted.
Passing game. Virginia sophomore quarterback Michael Rocco threw for 36 yards Saturday. That’s hard to fathom, considering he entered the game averaging 191.7 passing yards per game. At one point, Rocco threw 10 straight incompletions. That’s also hard to fathom, considering Rocco entered the game with a 62.6 completion percentage. Something very clearly was wrong with Virginia’s offense Saturday, and it wasn’t all Rocco’s doing. A few quotes from Coach Mike London:
On what was wrong with the offense Saturday: “I don’t know. That’s a good question. But it’s disappointing. Too many turnovers, for sure. Too many turnovers that led to points.”
On the play of Rocco and Watford (4 of 16 passing for 89 yards): “Obviously everybody saw it wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t a good enough effort from the quarterbacks in terms of throwing the ball and completing passes and catching the ball. The ball bouncing off hands and different things like that.”
Again on the offense: “Our job offensively is to find that thing that we can get going and be consistent at.”
Well, right now, Virginia’s offense is anything but consistent. One week it can move the ball, but it can’t score (particularly in the second half). The next week it can’t move the ball and it can’t score (in either half). Things seem to be moving in the wrong direction.
That may stem in large part from the quarterback situation. We’ve been over this before, so I’ll try to be concise. The coaches’ plan entering each game is to find Watford playing time in the first half. No matter what. They typically insert him in either Virginia’s fourth or fifth series.
A week ago against Georgia Tech, Virginia replaced Rocco with Watford immediately after Rocco had thrown an interception. But no one paid much mind because the Cavaliers ended up winning that game. On Saturday, Virginia replaced Rocco with Watford immediately after Rocco had led the Cavaliers on a 14-play, 72-yard touchdown drive to give his team an early lead. In both situations, damage was done to Rocco’s confidence, not to mention his rhythm. Not that you’ll see London or offensive coordinator Bill Lazor publicly admitting as much anytime soon.
“Just stuck to the plan,” Lazor said when asked after the game Saturday whether he was hesitant to pull Rocco immediately after his second-quarter touchdown drive.
Watford made his share of mistakes Saturday (three interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown), but he also provided a highlight or two (his 60-yard touchdown pass to Tim Smith comes to mind). The same could be said for Rocco. It seems apparent – at least to this reporter – that the current quarterback rotation is damaging the offense’s overall development. I’m not saying a two-quarterback system can’t work, and certainly Virginia is not the only school in the country trying to implement one. But the current setup isn’t working right now. Not for Rocco. Not for Watford. Not for Lazor. Not for the team as a whole. This offense has shown it can be explosive and prodigious. It wasn’t either of those things Saturday.
Running game. Virginia averaged 5 yards per carry in the first half. The Cavaliers, mind you, entered the game averaging 193.3 rushing yards per game and possess one of the top offensive lines in the country. N.C. State entered the game with a rushing defense that did not have a reputation for being either stingy or healthy. The Cavaliers trailed by seven points until late in the third quarter. And still, in the second half Virginia seemed to venture away from the run. In fact, the Cavaliers carried the ball five fewer times in the second half than it did in the first. During Virginia’s first three offensive possessions of the second half – all of which ended in three-and-outs – the Cavaliers threw the ball seven times and ran the ball twice. The totals of those nine snaps: four rushing yards and seven incomplete passes. Virginia gained a season-low 124 rushing yards on a season-low 33 carries Saturday.
Pass defense. Glennon’s passing stats – 20 of 36 passing (55.5 percent) for 231 yards and three touchdowns – were good. Were it not for a handful of drops by Glennon’s receivers, his numbers would have been significantly better. Glennon oftentimes found his receivers open and got the ball to them, but the receivers simply dropped them. Had to have been a frustrating day for the Westfield graduate. One on of Glennon’s touchdown passes, true freshman cornerback Demetrious Nicholson bit hard on a play-action fake and ended up several strides behind the receiver who caught the pass. On another one, senior cornerback Dom Joseph missed a tackle that would have limited the gain to less than 15 yards. Instead, the receiver ended up sprinting 79 yards for a touchdown. Glennon’s target on his other touchdown pass was left wide open on a Virginia blitz.