CHARLOTTESVILLE — In the days following Virginia’s heartbreaking 27-26 loss to Maryland on Saturday, many have focused on the decisions by Coach Mike London that led to a 42-yard field goal attempt with 10 seconds remaining. After driving to the Terrapins 25-yard line, the Cavaliers ran it twice to center the ball for backup place kicker Alec Vozenilek, rather than try to gain another first down. Vozenilek sent the kick wide right.
Lost in all that, though, was the drive that got them there. Without any timeouts, quarterback David Watford put Virginia on the cusp of a much-needed road victory by directing a march that began at his own 17-yard line.
Watford didn’t seem to flinch, completing 5 of 7 passes for 50 yards. The redshirt sophomore also watched his top receiver (tight end Jake McGee) leave the field hobbled after the first play and his best lineman (left tackle Morgan Moses) commit a false-start penalty that forced Virginia to convert on third and 12. It was the culmination of what London would later deem his “best game to date.”
“As you saw it unfold, there were different things that happened that you look at, and you shake your head like, ‘He’s getting better,’ ” London said Monday.
In the two games since the Cavaliers mustered just three points against Pittsburgh, Watford has steadily improved and the offense has followed suit. Against the Terrapins, he completed 27 of 44 passes for a career-high 263 yards and a touchdown, dissecting Maryland’s defense by finding McGee and fellow tight end Zach Swanson early and often (the two combined for 11 catches for 150 yards).
Perhaps more importantly, it was the first game all season in which Watford did not commit a turnover. Only North Carolina State’s Pete Thomas has more interceptions than Watford (seven) among ACC quarterbacks this season. Watford finished Saturday’s game with a passer rating of 119.1, his highest against a Football Bowl Subdivision team this season.
“I feel my confidence is getting better week to week. With each game, I’m able to see defenses better and the game is slowing down for me more,” Watford said. Offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild is “showing more confidence in me in the play calls and what we’re able to do on the field as an offense.”
The Cavaliers host Duke on Saturday afternoon. Last season’s game against the Blue Devils marked the first start for former Virginia quarterback Phillip Sims. From that point on, the Cavaliers’ quarterback position was a revolving door, and players have since said it was a detriment to the offense.
London believes Watford’s steady improvement is the result of the coaching staff’s belief in him despite his growing pains. Fairchild has also tailored the offense better to Watford’s strengths in recent weeks, encouraging him to run more.
Watford once again defended Fairchild’s play-calling this week, noting “it does bother me when I see people criticizing Coach Fairchild: ‘Oh, he doesn’t call enough plays down the field or they’re not trying to do this or not trying to do that.’ People just don’t understand.”
Over the past two weeks, Watford has rushed for 81 yards and one touchdown. He also has 12 passing plays of 15 or more yards. Through three games this season, Virginia ranked among the nation’s worst in the latter category.
“I think the consistency of having a guy and saying that you’re the guy is important,” London said. “I believe that that’s what’s occurring with David right now is that there’s a certain maturation process that you have, getting acclimated to what’s being called upon as far as the system, not having to feel like he’s got to look over his shoulder when a bad throw or something like that is done, and just believing.
“As I said a couple games before, I believe in David. I believe in what we’re asking him to do. He’s getting better at it, and this was his best college football game to date, and I believe he’s got better games ahead of him.”