Virginia football still searching for answers on offense


“The defense played a great game, but offensively we have to step it up and get to their level and just be able to execute,” Virginia quarterback David Watford said of the Cavaliers’ loss at Pittsburgh. “We can’t depend on them all the time.” (Keith Srakocic/AP)
October 3, 2013

Virginia quarterback David Watford was so disgusted with his performance Saturday in a 14-3 loss against Pittsburgh that he didn’t shower when it was over. He didn’t talk to his mother or visit with family who had trekked to the game.

He was on the bus so quick, ready to board the team charter and forget a day that was offensive in all the wrong ways, that the school’s sports information department didn’t have time to retrieve him for postgame interviews.

When Watford returned to Charlottesville that night, he hit the practice field for a throwing session with wide receivers Darius Jennings and Dominique Terrell. By Sunday, he had gathered the entire receiving corps for passing drills at Virginia’s practice facility.

Offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild stepped away from the mistake-filled game film he was dissecting to witness the latter scene unfold. Watching his players try to rid themselves of the feeling from a “winnable” game against Pittsburgh only crystallized what he already knew: Some of the blame fell on his own shoulders.

“We need to improve in every area in a hurry, myself included,” Fairchild said this week. “I’ve got to do a better job. I’ve got to get them in better spots to succeed.”

There was plenty of soul-searching to go around this week after the Cavaliers’ offense wasted a coming-of-age showing by their defense and another chance to prove the program is headed in the right direction.

Though Virginia enters Saturday’s nonconference finale against Ball State (4-1) armed with the 2-2 record many expected through the first month of the 2013 season, the manner in which it arrived there has alarmed Coach Mike London and fans alike.

The Cavaliers rank 112th in the country in total offense, with just three touchdowns in three games against Football Bowl Subdivision competition. Two of those scoring drives were less than 30 yards and were the result of turnovers created by Virginia’s defense.

At Pittsburgh, the issues were widespread. They ranged from receivers who dropped 10 passes to an offensive line that couldn’t compensate for the loss of starting right guard Conner Davis to injury.

The problems sparked a bevy of changes to the depth chart this week, including a position change, the infusion of two freshmen on the offensive line and a wide-open competition at wide receiver involving nine players. The Cavaliers also expect running backs Khalek Shepherd and Taquan Mizzell to be back to full health after being limited the past two games by ankle injuries.

Still, London expressed “disappointment” over the lack of progress on offense, particularly because the team’s defense has acclimated so well to new defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta. But Fairchild admitted there might not be a quick fix.

“We’re obviously not gonna throw more at them, try to reinvent the wheel,” he said. “We’re just gonna try to do the things we do and do them better than how we’ve been doing them.”

Watford acknowledged he has heard the complaints about Fairchild’s vanilla play-calling thus far but declared “it’s not his fault.”

Instead, Watford expressed regret at the errors that “could’ve been a spark” for the Cavaliers along the way. On Saturday, for instance, he turned a potential 91-yard touchdown run into a 19-yard gain after taking too wide a path down the sideline and stepping out of bounds.

He also conceded his touch and decision-making — he has accounted for eight turnovers (six interceptions, two fumbles) — remain a work in progress.

“The defense played a great game, but offensively we have to step it up and get to their level and just be able to execute,” Watford said. “We can’t depend on them all the time.”

Fairchild has taken solace in the way his players have reacted to the offensive struggles this week and noted Watford “prepares like no one I’ve been around.” He is steadfast that once Virginia creates a balanced attack, defenses will begin to loosen up.

Patience, though, appears to be wearing thin.

On Tuesday, linebacker Henry Coley called Saturday’s game “a must win” given what awaits Virginia — No. 25 Maryland, No. 3 Clemson, No. 14 Miami and Virginia Tech — on the back end of its schedule. He might as well have just said “must score.”

“We need to form an identity on offense, and this gives us an opportunity at home to put some stats on the board and hopefully create an identity for ourselves that we can take into the rest of the season and into ACC play,” senior offensive lineman Luke Bowanko said. “But the onus is really on us.”

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