CHARLOTTESVILLE — After Virginia quarterback David Watford threw two interceptions in a span of five minutes early in the fourth quarter two weeks ago at North Carolina, effectively ending any chance the Cavaliers had of mounting a comeback in its 45-14 loss, in came backup Greyson Lambert for mop-up duty.
On his second pass, the redshirt freshman fired a 23-yard dart to wide receiver Keeon Johnson that sent the Cavaliers into a bye week with a touchdown and created the potential for yet another controversy in Charlottesville.
For two years, a revolving door at quarterback had become the norm for Virginia Coach Mike London, even though his players have since admitted it was a detriment to the team’s success at times. Just last season, when the Cavaliers also emerged from a late bye week hoping to end an extended losing streak, London went with a time share behind center. Quarterbacks Michael Rocco and Phillip Sims responded by leading the Cavaliers to a surprising 33-6 win at North Carolina State.
But when Virginia takes the field for its final road game of the season Saturday at Miami, looking to end a seven-game losing streak (its longest in-season skid since 1981), Watford will again be the starter and there has been little discussion about the alternative. When asked about Lambert’s role going forward, London said this week the team would not play him “more than what we’ve been doing.”
London named Watford as Virginia’s starter on Aug. 12, and he’s sticking by his promise to not waver in that choice.
“Coach London, he’s supported since Day One naming me the starter,” Watford said this week. “He hasn’t tried to pull me or make any, ‘Well, we’re gonna go with Greyson this week,’ and I wasn’t and I haven’t been waiting for that moment. But I don’t doubt Coach London and his decisions. I believe in him and he believes in me, so I haven’t really been looking over my shoulder or any of that stuff.”
Watford, though, is the first to admit his first full season as a starting quarterback has been “kind of a gut-check.”
He has shown flashes of potential, and this week Virginia’s sports information department touted his accomplishments, such as how Watford leads the ACC in completions (221) and ranks among the top five first-time starters in program history when it comes to completion percentage (58.3) and passing yards (1,974).
But that fails to address the overall regression in Virginia’s passing game since last season.
The Cavaliers are averaging the fewest yards per completion (8.97) in the Football Bowl Subdivision; the next-closest team (Syracuse) is almost a full yard better. They also rank 120th out of 125 schools in passing efficiency and Watford is tied with Virginia Tech’s Logan Thomas with an ACC-high 12 interceptions. He hasn’t thrown a touchdown pass since an Oct. 26 loss to Georgia Tech.
Wide receivers coach Marques Hagans, Watford’s cousin, said this week that it’s not fair to place all of those issues on Watford’s shoulders because of “a lack of production outside.” But a year after Sims and Rocco combined to complete 50 passes of 20 or more yards, Watford has just 19 to many of the same receivers.
“I would take most of the blame for it because I have missed guys. I have missed opportunities to make longer passes down the field,” Watford said. “And when I do put the ball up there, my guys go get it and they’ve proven to do that for me. I would take most of that. I just have to continue to trust those guys and let them go make plays for me.”
Watford, a third-year sophomore, said this week he expects to be the team’s starting quarterback when spring practice begins, but London offered no promises beyond the end of the regular season.
It appears Watford’s latest audition begins Saturday.
“There’s still a development stage for him yet to be seen,” London said. “But at the same time, you’re always looking for somebody to perform and get better, and with two games left, we’ll see how coming out of these games, how well he’s responded.”