PITTSBURGH – Before the 2013 college football season began, Virginia promised to field an offense based around a power rushing attack, a dual-threat quarterback with a longer leash than his predecessors and a play-caller with significant NFL experience.
Such modest expectations officially fell by the wayside Saturday afternoon at Heinz Field, replaced by a bevy of three-and-outs, a head coach who once again had to deal with questions about his game management and an offensive coordinator that has suddenly drawn the ire of the Cavaliers fan base just four games into his tenure in Charlottesville.
Facing a defense ranked 101st in the nation, the Cavaliers looked inept on offense and wasted a dominating performance by their defense in a 14-3 loss to Pittsburgh.
Even when the Cavaliers finally did find an offensive rhythm, embarking on a 15-play, 77-yard drive that began midway through the fourth quarter, a baffling decision by Coach Mike London proved costly. London chose to go for it on fourth and two from Pittsburgh’s 3-yard line rather than kick a field goal and make it a one-score game.
Quarterback David Watford’s ensuing pass sailed too high for tight end Jake McGee to corral and Pittsburgh took over with 3 minutes 30 seconds remaining. London faced criticism about his decision-making at the end of last season, and Virginia hired former North Carolina State Coach Tom O’Brien as an associate head coach this year to help with game management.
“Even if you don’t get a touchdown, you got a chance to get a first down. Talking to both [running backs coach] Larry [Lewis] and Coach O’Brien, I said, ‘Let’s go for it.’ . . . Obviously, we didn’t do a good job of executing,” said London, who also chose to go for it on fourth down twice in the second quarter rather than settle for field goals. Virginia failed to convert both times.
Those weren’t the only opportunities wasted, though.
Virginia safety Anthony Harris created two turnovers to begin the second half, forcing a fumble and snagging his second interception of the year on Pittsburgh’s first two drives after halftime.
Both plays set up Virginia’s offense inside Pittsburgh territory with a chance to whittle down a 14-0 deficit. But the Cavaliers began the second half with four straight three-and-outs. For the game, Virginia gained just 188 yards and had nine drives in which it failed to pick up a first down.
When Watford wasn’t running for his life Saturday behind an offensive line that couldn’t seem to block Panthers defensive tackle Aaron Donald with right guard Conner Davis out because of injury, he struggled through his own poor decisions and dropped passes by his receiving corps.
He finished 15 of 37 for 123 yards, ran for another 19 yards and fumbled a shotgun snap in the first quarter that led to a Pittsburgh touchdown. Neither Watford nor offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild were made available to reporters after the game, although London said he did not consider pulling Watford from the game at any point.
“It seemed like every pass play, we were doing something wrong,” McGee said. “We, as an offense, kind of shot ourselves in the foot today.”
Added London, “The drops and the inefficiency on third down — that was our demise.”
The offensive woes spoiled a hallmark showing by Virginia’s defense, which mostly stymied a Pittsburgh attack that had generated 598 yards and 58 points one week earlier in a win over Duke. The Cavaliers sacked quarterback Tom Savage seven times and eventually knocked him out of the game with concussion-like symptoms, forced three turnovers and limited the Panthers to eight rushing yards.
Pittsburgh’s only points came via Virginia’s gaffes. Before Watford’s fumble, punt returner Dominique Terrell allowed a bouncing ball to touch his leg and the Panthers recovered on the Cavaliers 19-yard line. Moments later, Pittsburgh tailback James Conner ran over Virginia safety Brandon Phelps en route to a six-yard touchdown that gave the Panthers an early 7-0 lead.
“I’m supposed to go away from it, but I was trying to save some field position,” Terrell said.
By the time the game was over, and Virginia had mustered only a 32-yard field goal by Ian Frye late in the third quarter, one Cavaliers fan had already started a Twitter account (@UVAOCSTINKS) demanding that Fairchild be fired.
London, meanwhile, promised personnel changes for an offense that has mustered three touchdowns in three games against Football Bowl Subdivision opponents this year.
“What I told everyone was this has got to get fixed, and it’s not about a popularity contest,” he said. “It’s about finding those players that can be consistent and give us a chance to win, and that’s the first thing we’ll work on Sunday — finding the who and the what.”