Pinpointing exactly what Tom O’Brien does as Virginia’s associate head coach for offense this year has been hard. His role has been shrouded in generalities, aside from O’Brien’s title as tight ends coach, with the Cavaliers acutely aware that the former North Carolina State coach has no desire to publicly overstep his boundaries.
But from all accounts, O’Brien is something of a problem solver for Virginia because of his 39 years of coaching experience. And when he spoke with reporters for the first time since the regular season began this week, O’Brien already had a good grasp on the problems that have the Cavaliers in desperate straits entering Saturday’s game at Maryland.
“We’ve been our own worst enemies,” he lamented.
O’Brien’s said his focus has been on Virginia’s turnover issues. The Cavaliers have the worst turnover margin in the ACC, the result of seven interceptions and seven fumbles. It’s particularly troubling considering just four BCS-conference teams had a worse turnover margin than Virginia in 2012.
The fumbles bother O’Brien more than the interceptions — “The ball ain’t heavy. You shouldn’t drop it,” he said — and noted it comes down to “mental toughness,” a characteristic the Cavaliers are still developing.
He was more accepting of quarterback David Watford’s errors.
“You’re gonna throw some interceptions and you can’t make your quarterbacks afraid to throw the ball,” O’Brien said. “Now, if it becomes a problem, then we have to find a solution to it. But you can’t be afraid to pull the trigger at quarterback, so some of those things are gonna happen. Even though you don’t want them, you have to accept that fact, especially when you have a kid like we do that has basically started five football games. He’s a rookie quarterback and that’s gonna happen.”
O’Brien acknowledged the “noise” from restless fans in recent weeks, but he was quick to point out Virginia’s roster includes just seven seniors and that the Cavaliers have nearly 60 of their 85 scholarships tied up in the past two recruiting classes.
The youth has been most noticeable along the offensive line, O’Brien said, where Virginia has just two seniors (Luke Bowanko and Morgan Moses) and will start freshman Eric Smith at right tackle on Saturday against Maryland.
On Saturday, Virginia also will likely move Bowanko, a former All-Met from Centreville High, back to center with left guard Conner Davis healthy again.
But the inexperience is why Saturday has become paramount if Virginia wants to avoid the extended swoon that ultimately ruined its season a year ago.
“They got to learn how to win,” O’Brien said. “Losing becomes a habit. We have to change that. We have to learn how to win a football game.”
Here are three other themes to watch when the Cavaliers take on Maryland in the final ACC game between the two schools.
The last dance?
With Maryland’s impending move to the Big Ten, Saturday could be the final game for the forseeable future in a rivalry that dates to 1919. The two schools have played each other every year since 1957. Virginia Coach Mike London didn’t rule out facing Maryland in nonconference play in the future this week, but the Cavaliers’ schedule is mostly set over the next decade and Maryland has locked in its opponents through 2019. Virginia has won three straight games at Byrd Stadium.
After taking a vicious high-low hit in last week’s blowout loss at Florida State, Maryland quarterback C.J. Brown was listed as doubtful on the team’s injury report. If he can’t play, sophomore Caleb Rowe would receive his second career start. Virginia’s David Watford, meanwhile, is coming off his best showing to date when he passed for 209 yards and rushed for 47 yards and a touchdown in last weekend’s loss to Ball State. But the redshirt sophomore has also thrown seven interceptions this season, a big reason why the Cavaliers have the worst turnover margin in the ACC again.
The Diggs dilemma
Maryland wide receiver Stefon Diggs tormented Virginia a year ago, returning the opening kickoff for a touchdown and catching a 60-yard pass that set up another score as the Terrapins beat the Cavaliers, 27-20, in Charlottesville. Though Diggs has been nicked up in recent weeks, Virginia’s task became even more difficult when it announced junior cornerback Demetrious Nicholson would not play Saturday because of a lower-extremity injury. Nicholson had started every game since coming to Virginia back in 2011.