CHARLOTTESVILLE — Virginia Coach Mike London promised his offense would spend its bye week looking for an identity. The search led the Cavaliers back to the team that dealt them a 59-10 loss a little more than a week ago.
After experiencing first-hand how difficult it was to prepare for Oregon dual-threat quarterback Marcus Mariota, London told reporters Monday that Virginia’s coaching staff has implored first-year starter David Watford to use his legs more in hopes of spicing up an attack that has sputtered in two games this season.
London noted Cavaliers offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild dialed up several read-option plays in which Watford handed the ball to running backs in Virginia’s games against BYU and No. 2 Oregon, “but you have to call it enough to where the opportunity [for Watford to run] will present itself.
“He’s talented enough to be able to do that,” London said. “He wants to do what’s right and what’s called for, but at the same time, he can use his athleticism and make those decisions himself. So we’re going to empower him to do those type of things.”
Virginia’s defensive players rave about Watford’s elusiveness in practice, but the redshirt sophomore has been turnover-prone and unable to complete many passes down the field thus far. Though the Cavaliers have allowed just two sacks, they are one of only eight Football Bowl Subdivision schools without a passing play of 30 or more yards this season (Michigan State is the only other BCS school). They also have the fewest receptions of 15 or more yards (two) in the country.
But the hope is the threat of Watford’s running ability will open up lanes for the Cavaliers’ trio of tailbacks and set the stage for more opportunities in the passing game.
While London was quick to point out “there won’t be wholesale changes” when Virginia takes on VMI this Saturday, he talked optimistically about all the downfield routes run by receivers in recent practices. Swanson noted Watford’s potential as a runner “throws the defense into fits.”
Watford has rushed for 18 yards this season, and registered 42 yards on 21 attempts when he received sporadic playing time as a true freshman in 2011.
“All I know from these practices over the bye week was they were tough,” Swanson said. “They were like camp-style, and I was soaked after practice. . . . It was not running around in helmets.”
The potential for improvement also exists in Watford’s developing relationship with Fairchild, who also doubles as Virginia’s quarterbacks coach. Fairchild called the Oregon game from the sideline after being in the coaches’ box during the season opener, and London declared that change “very beneficial” for Watford.
Many fans have criticized Fairchild’s conservative play-calling, but Watford tried to take on much of the blame for the offense’s woes after throwing three interceptions against the Ducks. Virginia is currently the lowest-scoring BCS team in the country, and Watford is averaging just 3.77 yards per passing attempt in two games.
But the quality of opponent was not lost on London: Oregon is a known commodity and BYU’s stock improved after its dismantling of then-No. 15 Texas in Week 2. The Cavaliers sport a .500 record and London remains steadfast about Watford’s progress.
“He’ll never talk about someone that didn’t run the right route or not having enough time to throw the ball,” London said. “I think what the players see is . . . this is what a true leader is all about. So they’ve got to step their game up as well.”