Read Part I of this post here.
The season began for Virginia with Michael Rocco as the designated starter at quarterback and freshman David Watford locked in for guaranteed playing time with what Coach Mike London described then as a “limited menu” of plays to run.
During Virginia’s season-opening 40-3 victory over William & Mary, Watford entered for the fifth series. The Cavaliers went three-and-out, and Watford was sacked once.
In Virginia’s ninth series, Watford returned for a drive that began on the William & Mary 35-yard line. Watford again did not attempt a pass, but he did hand off the ball to redshirt freshman tailback Kevin Parks on the drive’s third play, and Parks ran 26 yards for a touchdown.
Watford played in two more series that day and ended up completing 3 of 5 passes for 46 yards. The lopsided manner of that game enabled the coaching staff to play Watford more against William & Mary than it originally had anticipated, Lazor said.
Watford entered Virginia’s second game – a 34-31 win at Indiana – for the fifth series, as well, and again the Cavaliers went three-and-out. They Watford completed a seven-yard pass to senior wideout Matt Snyder, but logged just three plays that day.
“As the second half began, we scored on our first drive,” Cavaliers offensive coordinator Bill Lazor said in an interview late last week. “We scored a touchdown, and I thought that we’d be in a situation to play [Watford]. But the way the game went, with us backed up and [Indiana] coming back, it played out to be a game that Mike Rocco had to play. Because he had to do what he was able to do in the passing game.”
Watford entered Virginia’s 28-17 loss at North Carolina the following week for the fourth series. Watford completed 1 of 4 passes for 11 yards, and the Cavaliers advanced 58 yards in eight plays before turning over the ball on downs at the North Carolina 36-yard line. Watford did not play the rest of the game.
Lazor said he believes that if a team is definitely going to play its backup quarterback in a game, such a move has to be made in the first half. And the Virginia coaching staff decided in recent weeks that it needed to get Watford into games by the fourth series. By the fifth series, Lazor said, it could be a two-minute drill situation, and he does not feel Watford has had enough experience in that type of scenario to be prepared to execute in it adequately in games.
“I know in one of the games, that series the ball happened to be down at the 1-yard line from a punt,” Lazor said. “No one wants to go in with the ball on the 1. But I also don’t want to call plays with the ball on the 1. But there’s nothing you can do about it. If you’re going to play, you’re going to play.
“And so we just said: ‘Hey, we’re going to get him in the game. Time is up. It’s time to go.’ I’m not at a point where I’m concerned about his decisions or his ball security, so I feel like if the ball’s on the [opponent’s 1-yard line] or [Virginia’s 1-yard line], he’s had the ball in the second quarter of the game and he also was in [against Idaho] in overtime.
“We’re not at a point where we’re trying to protect him. He’s going to play football. He has skills and he can play, so we’ll decide before the next game how he’s going to play. It may be the same pattern or it may be a different one. We made decide differently. There’s a lot of different ways to do it.”
The drive to which Lazor referred began with just more than eight minutes remaining in the second quarter of Virginia’s 30-24 loss Sept. 24 to Southern Mississippi. The Cavaliers had scored touchdowns on two of their first three possessions and were backed up on their 1-yard line after a 47-yard punt.
A timeout was called, giving Virginia more time to ponder how – and with which quarterback – it wanted to proceed. The Cavaliers trailed by one at the time.
Virginia went with Watford, who ran once for two yards and then threw two incomplete passes out of his team’s end zone.
“We wanted him to play in the normal flow of the game,” Lazor said. “You never know. If you get the ball at [Virginia’s 1-yard line], how long are you going to drive it? How long are they going to drive it? Next thing you know, you get the ball back with 47 seconds left in the half and he hasn’t had a real drive. You just don’t know how the game is going to go.
“We’ve had some 15-play drives this year. And I always go out there hoping we’re going to. And so if you don’t do it [get Watford in the game], then it just gets harder as the game goes on.”
Through five games, the Virginia offense has conducted two drives that lasted 15 or more plays.
After the Cavaliers punted out of their own end zone following Watford’s first series against Southern Miss, the Eagles executed an eight-play drive that lasted 2:40. Southern Miss advanced 35 yards and scored on a three-yard touchdown pass to increase its lead to 21-13. When Virginia began its fifth series – with Rocco back in – 4:34 remained in the first half.
“Here’s the funny thing: Our right guard and our right tackle subbed in in the third series [against Southern Miss], but no one wants to do a story about that,” Lazor said. “And then more different linemen subbed in in the fourth series with David, but no one has yet wanted to do a [story] with that. . . . So everyone’s asking all these questions about it, but it’s the exact same decisions we make with the linemen, with the running backs. The wide receivers subbed in in the second series, you know?”
When asked whether he thought there was a greater impact on the offense when a quarterback is subbed into a game, as opposed to a running back or wide receiver, Lazor replied: “It depends who they are. It depends on the skill level. If the skill level is the same, then no. If there’s nothing that’s different, I mean, they should both call the cadence the same way.”
Lazor then was asked whether that meant he felt that at this point Rocco and Watford are at the same skill level.
“No, they’re different in things that they do,” Lazor said. “But the ability to run the offense, if you took a walk-on quarterback and rotated him in, it would have a big impact. But if you took a walk-on receiver and rotated him in, it might have a similar impact. . . . I mean, to me, a bigger deal is made of it than what it is and how we’re trying to rotate players here.”
London always has been a proponent of finding playing time for many different players, and that philosophy holds up on both sides of the ball. This season, London has played 12 true freshmen.
“Part of the thing here — right now, on this team — is Coach London is adamant about we’re developing this team and we’re playing a lot of people,” Lazor said. “We play almost as many true freshmen as anyone in the country, and it’s just a matter of his leadership in deciding what this team needs to do. I can tell you that the more people play in games, the better the practices are, because these guys have hope that they’re going to play in games.
“What we’re seeing right now is the way that Coach London chooses to build this team is to play a lot of people, so it is a big story because all eyes are on the signal caller. But the perspective of this is how this team is operating at a lot of positions. And it’s not a façade. That’s what we’re doing.”
Watford replaced Rocco late in the third quarter against Southern Miss. Rocco had suffered a rib injury just before halftime. He also had thrown three interceptions.
Watford led the Cavaliers on a 10-play scoring drive in the fourth quarter and ended up completing 10 of 20 passes for 81 yards and a touchdown. He also reeled off a 15-yard run that showcased his athleticism and speed. Rocco has carried the ball his fair share of times this season and even has two rushing touchdowns, but – fair or not – his runs do not elicit the same degree of excitement from the crowd as do the times when Watford scrambles out of the pocket.
During Virginia’s 21-20 overtime win over Idaho, the Cavaliers again scored touchdowns on two of their first three possessions. Watford again entered the game for the fourth series. He threw an interception on his third pass attempt. Rocco re-entered the game, but Virginia fumbled the ball on its fifth and sixth possessions. The Cavaliers did not score again in regulation.
When asked whether he thought Rocco’s rhythm was affected by being taken out of the game after getting the offense off to successful starts in consecutive weeks, Lazor replied, “Um, you know, it’s really not something that crosses my mind, if it affects Mike’s rhythm or not.”
When asked whether he thought the rhythm of the entire offense was affected by the quarterback switch after getting off to successful starts, Lazor said he did not.
Lazor said in the Southern Miss game the offense “just didn’t sustain some drives and then we were on the sideline for a bigger portion than we were in the first half. It wasn’t so much while we were out on the field.”
Against Southern Miss, Virginia possessed the ball for 14:02 in the first half and scored 13 points. The Cavaliers possessed the ball for 16:27 in the second half and scored 11 points.
In the Idaho game, Lazor said he felt the offense was moving the ball “just fine” until a rash of turnovers occurred. Virginia turned the ball over on three consecutive possessions in the second quarter.
“There was no disruption to how I was calling the plays,” Lazor said. “On the sideline, when I feel disruption to, ‘What can I call? What am I searching for?’ that’s when I think our rhythm is off. But when David went in, we were moving the ball just fine until we threw an interception. And then Mike went back in and we were moving the ball and then we fumbled it.
“And I can tell on the sideline as I’m calling the plays if I have to search for something that’s working because things are flailing around, or if I just feel like we’re going. And I just felt like we were going. I didn’t feel any disruption in the rhythm. I really didn’t.”
Unlike in the Indiana game, Lazor said he had no hesitation re-inserting Watford in the game against Idaho in the second half, even though the score was tight. Watford had gone through three more weeks of practice, and Lazor believed the player was prepared to play under such circumstances.
Watford played the first three series of the fourth quarter before being subbed out in favor of Rocco. But Rocco remained in the game only one series before giving way once again to Watford.
“Those aren’t easy decisions on when to make changes, I think,” Lazor said.
When asked whether he or London makes the decisions during games on when to pull one quarterback and put another in, Lazor replied, “I think that’s staff information that I wouldn’t share.”
At this point, Lazor said he would feel comfortable starting Watford. But also said he would feel comfortable starting redshirt sophomore Ross Metheny, whose only playing time this season came at the very end of the win over William & Mary.
“We have just the right kind of guys as far as their preparation, and David is no different,” Lazor said. “He prepares. It’s very important to him. . . . If circumstances made it that he was the starter, I’d sleep well the night before the game. But it would be the same with Ross, and that’s how it is every week with Michael. I really trust these guys. They haven’t been perfect, and we haven’t been perfect throwing it yet, but I think this is a big week for us.”
What Watford needs, Lazor said, are more repetitions – in practices and in games. And that’s exactly what he’ll get in the coming weeks.
Entering Saturday’s game against Georgia Tech, Virginia ranks No. 3 in the ACC in total offense (438.8 yards per game). That same Cavaliers offense also ranks No. 9 in the conference in points per game (27.2).
Lazor said he does not believe the offense’s growth is being stunted in any way as a consequence of the multiple quarterback switches that have occurred in the past two games.
“It is difficult to call the game for two guys,” Lazor said.
He paused for 10 seconds.
“When we thought that it wouldn’t be good for the offense was when we decided that the good of the team overrides everything,” Lazor continued. “So at that point, we were subbing in quarterbacks just for plays. But when we got to the point where we did not think the team would suffer from it, then the quarterback could play a series. We made the right decision for the team first. And I think we’ve done that the whole time. I feel pretty confident in that.”