CHARLOTTESVILLE — When Bill Lazor left the NFL coaching ranks to become Virginia’s offensive coordinator in January 2010, he studied film of other college offenses and saw that some teams were proficient at short, bubble screen-type passes, while others excelled at deep, aggressive throws.
But few college teams, he learned, were adept at executing intermediate throws in the 10- to 20-yard range. Completing those passes, he said, is harder, more of a science. And yet this was what Lazor wanted out of Virginia’s quarterbacks: drop five steps, hitch and release. Gain yardage in chunks. Efficiently advance the ball into the end zone.
Entering Thursday night’s game at Miami (4-3, 2-2 ACC), Virginia’s quarterbacks have failed to meet those objectives. The Cavaliers (4-3, 1-2) are scoring fewer points per game than all but two teams in the conference, and thus far the passing attack has been reliant largely upon short passes into the flat with occasional long heaves down the field.
The offense has yet to maintain consistent rhythm throughout four consecutive quarters. That intermediate zone Lazor adores has yet to be frequently populated with Virginia passes.
This week, Coach Mike London attempted to address his team’s offensive instability by tweaking the two-quarterback system Virginia previously had been using. True freshman David Watford will assume a smaller in-game role for the Cavaliers’ remaining five games, London said, which ideally will allow sophomore starter Michael Rocco more breathing room to maintain offensive momentum.
Even still, that might not translate into a return to the style of passing game Lazor would prefer, one the Cavaliers proved capable of implementing last season with quarterback Marc Verica — a fifth-year senior — running the offense. Virginia ranked No. 3 in the ACC in passing offense in 2010 (265.5 yards per game).
Rocco continues to be bothered by a rib injury suffered during a 30-24 loss to Southern Mississippi on Sept. 24. The extent to which the injury affected him Saturday, when Rocco at one point threw 10 straight incompletions during a 28-14 loss to North Carolina State, remains unclear.
What is clear is that the strength of Virginia’s offense this year has been its running game, and London said Monday he’d like to see the team’s three serviceable tailbacks be relied upon more frequently.
“I think the best way also to help Michael would be to do some of these other things,” London said. “Run the ball better more, and then also be able to take those down-the-field shots.”
Watford, who possesses superior arm strength to Rocco, completed a 60-yard touchdown pass to redshirt sophomore wideout Tim Smith late in the third quarter against N.C. State. But Watford also threw three interceptions. In an effort to protect Watford’s confidence, London said that moving forward he would scale back the freshman’s in-game responsibilities from orchestrating full series to executing particular plays.
And so Thursday, for the first time this season, Watford’s entrance into the game will not be scripted. Previously, Watford had been inserted in either Virginia’s fourth or fifth offensive possession regardless of circumstance, a setup Rocco has said was not ideal. What impact the alteration to the quarterback plan will have on Rocco is yet to be seen.
Senior wideout Kris Burd said the offensive players did not review film from the N.C. State loss, in which the Cavaliers tallied the lowest number of yards (249) in London’s 19 games as coach. Rather, Virginia dived straight into preparations for a Miami defense that ranks No. 3 in the ACC in points allowed per contest (21.3).
“It’s a short week, so you don’t really have time to think about the past,” Burd said. “You’ve got to worry about the future.”
Until Sunday, London had been primarily concerned about the future as it pertained to Watford’s development. And while he continues to be heavily invested in Watford’s growth as a quarterback, London has turned more of his focus to the future as it pertains to the next five weeks, in which Virginia needs two wins to become bowl-eligible for the first time since 2007.
London and Lazor have said they do not believe the offense’s overall advancement was stunted by the two-quarterback rotation, though Lazor acknowledged “it is difficult to call the game for two guys.” Lazor might not be able this season to mold the passing game into his preferred style, but at least now he can devote more attention to fitting the offense to match one quarterback’s skill-set.
“When you look at the who and the what for our team right now and what makes sense to put the pieces together, I think as a coaching staff, you’re talking about things,” London said. “This makes sense for us right now and where we are.”