With more than 12 minutes to play in regulation Saturday night and Virginia clinging to a six-point lead against a fast-charging Indiana squad, true freshman quarterback David Watford and junior tailback Perry Jones subbed into the game. It was second and six, and the Cavaliers were at the Indiana 36 yard-line.
Jones had to sub in – though maybe he would have regardless – because redshirt freshman tailback Kevin Parks had come up hobbling after gain four yards on a rush in the previous play. Watford’s insertion into the game, however, was not absolutely necessary.
Sophomore quarterback Michael Rocco had been having a decent but not great night. He was not hurt, and the Cavaliers were moving down the field fairly efficiently on that drive. But out came Rocco, and in went Watford.
And on the very next play, Watford handed the ball off to Jones. Jones fumbled the ball. Indiana cornerback Lawrence Barnett recovered the fumble and raced 55 into the end zone. After the extra point, Indiana led by one point.
“You see progress, but at the same time you have guarded optimism about what’s going on” with Watford, Virginia Coach Mike London said Sunday. “And again, you always try to put guys in a position where they can succeed, and it’s unfortunate that the point of the game that he came in, that handoff that ended up being a fumble and then a scoop and score, it kind of turned the game a little bit. … It didn’t work out to put David in the game.”
Watford, of course, is still in the very early stages of his college career, and he’s being given opportunities and put into positions few true freshmen FBS quarterbacks get to experience. So mistakes will be made, and on this particular play it seems some confusion between Watford and Jones preceded Jones’s fumble.
The call was for a read play in which Watford sticks the ball in Jones’s belly while determining how much pressure the opposing defense is applying. Sometimes the quarterback keeps it; sometimes he hands it off. He lets the tailback know which direction he’s leaning by how hard he presses the ball in the tailback’s stomach. A light touch means the quarterback is likely to keep the ball and run it himself. A harder touch signals the tailback should expect to keep the ball.
Early in the fourth Saturday night, Watford stuck the ball in Jones’s stomach lightly, Jones said. And so Jones figured Watford planned to keep the ball and carry it himself.
But instead of pulling the ball away from Jones, Watford* kept it there until finally Jones took it from him. Jones said he didn’t want the ball to fall to the ground.
“It was just a miscommunication between me and the quarterback,” Jones said. “I think I just read it wrong.”
*Watford was not one of the players Virginia made available for interview after the game and, therefore, was unable to comment on how this play unfolded.
Moments later, Jones was hit by Indiana strong safety Jarrell Drane and the ball popped loose. Barnett picked it up, and suddenly the Cavaliers’ lead was gone.
In the end, this play ended up not mattering nearly as much as it seemed it would at the time. It just struck me – in the moment and still as I type this post – as an odd time to put Watford in the game. But it certainly demonstrates the degree of commitment the Virginia coaches have made to Watford, as well as the level of faith London has in the young quarterback.
Through two games, Watford has completed 4 of 6 passes for 53 yards. He also has carried the ball five times for negative-five yards and has been sacked once.
“I think that as we move forward with (Watford), we’re probably at the point now where just, you know, pick a series or pick a time and say, ‘Listen, you’re going in the game. Here we go. You’re going to run the offense,’” London said Sunday. “We said before, we weren’t going to try to put too much on him, and I think every week he’s starting to learn a little bit more and know a little bit more about what’s going on.
“And so, he’s to the point where we can put him in a game and he can manage the offense and run some plays. We anticipate being able to do that again.”