Virginia’s game Saturday was supposed to be an opportunity for the Cavaliers to correct some flaws and feel better about themselves heading into their bye week and the eventual resumption of ACC play.
Then the game took place and Virginia changed quarterbacks five times and couldn’t score in the final three quarters of regulation and ended up needing overtime to beat a Western Athletic Conference team that had lost three previous games* this season by an average of 23.7 points.
* Those losses were to Bowling Green, Texas A&M and Fresno State. The margin of defeat in none of those games was tighter than 17 points.
So, on the day after, do you feel better about Virginia now than you did, say, when you woke up Saturday morning? The Cavaliers did get the win – 21-20 in OT – and that is important to note. They very well could have lost the game at the very end when Idaho went for two after scoring in overtime.
Coach Mike London & Co. have lots of issues to address over the next two weeks before undefeated Georgia Tech comes to town.
Kris Burd. With his eight-catch, 123-yard performance Saturday, Burd moved into fifth place on the program’s all-time receptions list (126) and into eighth place on Virginia’s all-time receiving yards list (1,650). After a slow start, Burd has averaged eight catches and 107 receiving yards per game the past three weeks. If he matches those averages against Georgia Tech, he’ll move into the No. 4 spot on the receptions list and the No. 7 spot on the receiving yards list.
Matt Conrath. The fifth-year senior defensive tackle recorded a sack and two batted down passes in Idaho’s first nine plays from scrimmage. On the day, Conrath tallied seven tackles, 1.5 sacks, 1.5 tackles for a loss and a forced fumble. That’s a pretty solid day’s work.
Tailbacks. Redshirt freshman Kevin Parks, the team’s leading rusher, did not play Saturday due to a lingering ankle injury. Junior Perry Jones and true freshman Clifton Richardson filled in capably in Parks’s absence. Jones gained 151 all-purpose yards (110 rushing; 41 receiving) and scored two touchdowns (one rushing; one receiving). He averaged 5.2 yards per rush and 5.9 yards per reception. Jones did fumble in the second quarter, but overall he had a pretty good day. Richardson ran the ball 11 times for 70 yards, and that wasn’t bad either.
Quarterback management. I’ll start by acknowledging that Mike London and Bill Lazor know 100 times more about football and offense and quarterback play and Michael Rocco and David Watford than I could ever hope to know. That said, I just don’t understand some of the decisions that have been made this season in regards to when to play Rocco and when to insert Watford. We’ll stick to Saturday’s game for now. Rocco –for the second time in as many games – conducts touchdown drives on two of Virginia’s first three possessions. And – again, for the second time in as many games – Watford was inserted into the game to run the fourth offensive series. The Cavaliers led by 14 at the time, and clearly, London and Lazor felt that was enough cushion.
“I just tried to pick up the rhythm or just continue the rhythm of the offense,” Watford said of entering the game at that point. “When I first went in, we were up two touchdowns already and (Lazor) just told me to keep the rhythm going. I just tried to keep everything flowing like it was before.”
He threw an interception on his third pass attempt. Then Rocco re-entered the game for Virginia’s fifth series. The Cavaliers fumbled on that drive, and then again on the next.
The plan entering the game, Lazor said, was to let Watford run two offensive series. That, he said, was non-negotiable. But after Watford conducted his second offensive series Saturday, the Cavaliers sent him back out for another one. And then another one. And still, Virginia scored no points.
“We felt like we were at a point where we hadn’t scored with him in, but (London) and I talked about on the sideline just his body language, the way he was throwing the football, the way he was running the huddle,” Lazor said. “For the most part we felt it was coming along, so we thought it was an opportunity for him to play and to make some plays.”
But then they took Watford back out of the game and re-inserted Rocco for one series. London said the coaches wanted to settle Watford down after he’d called the wrong play on the previous drive, which ended with Idaho blocking a Virginia punt and returning it four yards for a touchdown. The Vandals’ ensuing two-point conversion tied the game.
On the Cavaliers’ next series, Rocco oversaw a three-and-out. And again, London and Lazor opted for a change. London said Rocco’s final pass on that drive – one intended for Burd – had fluttered, and the coach thought the rib injury Rocco had suffered a week ago in a loss to Southern Mississippi might be bothering him. Rocco said after the game the injury did not affect any of his throws Saturday.
So, for the fifth time, Virginia changed quarterbacks and went back to Watford. The Cavaliers final drive in regulation stalled, but Watford did complete a 27-yard touchdown pass to true freshman wideout Domininque Terrell in overtime.
The plan ended up working out, but I’m guessing the Cavaliers won’t have as wide a margin for error against ACC opponents as they did against Idaho. It’s hard not to wonder how much the decision to play two quarterbacks every game is holding the Virginia offense back. London said they made all the quarterback switches Saturday in an attempt to find offensive rhythm, but all the quarterback switching may be what prevented the offensive rhythm from occurring.
Special teams. For two straight weeks against non-conference opponents, Virginia’s special teams have turned in sub-par performances. On Saturday, placekicker Robert Randolph missed two field goals. One was from 41 yards out; the other was from 36 yards out. So neither was a gimme, but both were within Randolph’s range. The first one was blocked at the line of scrimmage and fluttered down well short. The second sailed wide right by an incredibly close margin.
Oh, and then there was the blocked punt in the fourth quarter. Just more than three minutes remained, when Idaho returned the blocked punt four yards for a touchdown. When the Vandals converted the ensuing two-point conversion, the game was tied, 14-14. Afterward, London said it would be difficult to identify the breakdown that led to the blocked punt without reviewing the game film, but he said the snap looked good. He supposed it could have been a timing issue or that there might have been a gap in the three-man shield Virginia uses to block for punter Jimmy Howell. Regardless, that’s the kind of thing that absolutely cannot happen, especially when a team is struggling to put away a pesky visiting opponent.
Turnovers. Virginia should be thankful Idaho’s offense proved inept and its own defense proved fairly stingy Saturday. The Cavaliers turned the ball over on three consecutive possessions in the second quarter – Watford threw an interception, Richardson fumbled, Jones fumbled – and the Vandals managed to score only three points combined on the offensive possessions immediately following those miscues. Had Idaho made Virginia pay for those three turnovers, we could be talking today about the embarrassing loss the Cavaliers suffered at home for the second straight week against a non-conference opponent.