With few people giving Virginia much of a chance when it takes on No. 2 Oregon at Scott Stadium on Saturday, it’s easy to forget that the Cavaliers’ administration wanted this matchup. Jon Oliver, the school’s executive associate athletic director, asked Penn State to postpone a game in State College, Pa., so Virginia could host the Ducks as part of its “Sellout Scott” campaign.
Coach Mike London and his players, in turn, embraced the challenge, although tickets are still available. The game became part of their offseason motivation.
During workouts, strength and conditioning coach Evan Marcus would give players eight-second breaks between sprints because that’s how quickly BYU and Oregon, Virginia’s first two opponents this year, snap the ball.
In recent days, London has reminded his defense that the Cougars and Ducks each averaged 16.7 seconds per play last week. Defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta said Oregon’s offense might be faster than ever because it appears the Ducks are using a number system to call plays instead of their infamous sideline posters.
Win or lose, Virginia’s players realize the spotlight Oregon brings could convince others the program is back on track after last year’s 4-8 record. After last week’s 19-16 victory over BYU, the Cavaliers want to prove they belong on the same field as the only team in the country to finish ranked in the top five the past three seasons.
“It’s just another chance to put us on the map,” senior offensive tackle Morgan Moses said. “I think about my first year when we played USC down in California. We took it to those guys. The outcome wasn’t what we expected [Virginia lost, 17-14] but it just shows . . . we can play with the best.”
Virginia is hoping the same defense that dominated BYU a week ago will be able to contain Oregon, but the Cavaliers will need to show drastic improvement on offense to actually put a scare into the Ducks.
Defensive end Eli Harold is hopeful that regardless of what happens, Virginia doesn’t come out intimidated.
“I really think it would set the bar, you know what I’m saying, if and when we do defeat these guys,” Harold said. “You know going into the game once again as an underdog, nobody believes in us, so that’s more motivation that we have and more of a chip on our shoulder that we have to come out and we just got to punch them first. We just got to hit them. And if we get punched first, we just gotta respond in a good way and get up. Just can’t let these guys run all over us.”
Here are three themes to watch in Saturday’s game:
Oregon brings its high-flying offense and flashy uniforms for a rare game on the East Coast Saturday. Led by quarterback Marcus Mariota and running back De’Anthony Thomas, both Heisman Trophy candidates, the Ducks still boasts one of the nation’s most potent attacks even with former Coach Chip Kelly gone to the NFL. Oregon racked up 772 yards and 66 points in a rout of Nicholls State last week, the first game under new Coach Mark Helfrich. He was the program’s offensive coordinator the past four years. The Ducks boast a 15-game road winning streak that dates back to 2009.
Offense in progress
On the other end of the spectrum is Virginia, which gained just 223 yards in its 19-16 win over BYU to open the 2013 season. The Cavaliers’ two touchdown drives, which were set up by a blocked punt and an interception by safety Anthony Harris, totaled 29 combined yards. New offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild wants to establish a powerful rushing attack, and time-consuming drives will be crucial to keep Oregon’s offense out of rhythm. But Virginia quarterback David Watford must be a credible threat, and Fairchild talked this week about needing more “explosive” plays against a speedy Oregon defense that created the most turnovers in the country in 2012.
The victory over BYU was a boon for Virginia, if only because it takes some of the pressure off the Cavaliers this week. Last week, Virginia showed significant improvement on defense and special teams, and how they fare against Oregon will be another barometer of whether London’s offseason coaching staff makeover has been a success. The Cavaliers are 23-point underdogs, so even a respectable showing could be a boost as the program tries to qualify for another bowl game.