Nobody expected Virginia’s tilt with No. 2 Oregon on Saturday to be competitive, and the critics were dead on. The Cavaliers simply couldn’t keep up with the Ducks in a 59-10 blowout.
With an open date next week before a matchup against VMI on Sept. 21, Virginia will have plenty of time to stew. Here are five topics the Cavaliers might be talking about.
1) After the slow start, Virginia missed its chance to make Saturday’s game competitive.
There was a 71-yard touchdown run, a blocked punt that turned into another touchdown and an interception that gave Oregon a third score, but Virginia missed its shot at putting a scare into the Ducks after falling behind 21-0. In fact, once Cavaliers tailback Khalek Shepherd cut the deficit to 21-7 with a 45-yard touchdown run, Oregon all but asked Virginia to get back into the game.
The Ducks’ offense went uncharacteristically quiet, and Virginia’s defense forced two-straight Oregon punts. The Cavaliers’ response: a 23-yard drive that ended with a bubble screen to wide receiver Dominique Terrell on fourth and four (it ended up losing a yard) and a three-and-out.
Before Virginia could blink, Oregon then went on an 80-yard touchdown drive that lasted all of 41 seconds. It gave the Ducks a 28-7 lead and squelched any momentum the Cavaliers had. That sequence, more than the 31-0 beatdown Oregon inflicted on Virginia in the second half, led to Saturday’s blowout score.
2) No matter what QB David Watford says, Virginia’s offensive struggles were not all his fault.
The first thing Watford did during his postgame chat with reporters was credit his offensive line, his running backs and his receivers. He then placed all the offense’s struggles on his shoulders.
Coming from a quarterback, especially one who accounted for three interceptions and a fumble, it wasn’t all that surprising. But it also wasn’t accurate.
As Coach Mike London said after the game, Virginia’s problems run much deeper than its first-year signal-caller. For a second week in a row, the Cavaliers were held to less than 300 total yards, with a rushing game that couldn’t consistently churn out tough yards and a passing attack that struggled to complete downfield passes.
Really, they are the systemic issues that troubled Virginia’s offense a year ago under former offensive coordinator Bill Lazor.
“We need to find out what our identity is going to be,” London said. “Does it entail the quarterback running more? Is it a personnel issue, or schematic, or whatever it may be? We want to run the ball. We want to be committed to running the ball, but we’ve got to find those guys that can run it and move the chains for us. I think with the open week we can address those issues.”
Watford insisted offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild’s game plan wasn’t too conservative, and that he simply was taking what Oregon’s defense gave him by feeding his tight ends. Virginia’s longest passing play went for 16 yards.
On the ground, the Cavaliers averaged only 2.1 yards per carry without Shepherd’s 45-yard touchdown run. Judging from London’s rhetoric, and his offseason goal of building this offense around a power rushing attack, there could be some changes coming on the right side of Virginia’s offensive line.
“We just have to keep working and keep pushing. We moved the ball how we wanted to. I made a lot of mistakes that cost us and that really hurt us,” Watford said. “But we moved the ball down the field however we wanted against Oregon and did the same thing against BYU. I just have to keep the turnovers to a minimum. I just can’t turn the ball over.”
“I feel like we have a lot of playmakers. I have to get the ball to more guys and let them just make plays with the ball. That’s the main thing. I just have to be able to spread the ball out and just get it out to my receivers and just let them do what they do.
3) That said, Watford still has plenty of kinks to work out during the bye.
Watford didn’t mince words, and neither did London. In his second career start, the redshirt sophomore made too many mistakes despite completing 29 of 41 passes.
Watford’s first interception with just under five minutes remaining in the first quarter was thrown behind Terrell, who tipped the ball directly into the hands of Oregon defensive back Terrance Mitchell. On the very next play, De’Anthony Thomas scored on a 40-yard touchdown run.
Watford’s second interception was excusable. Virginia was facing fourth and 11, and Oregon linebacker Rodney Hardwick made a great diving catch when Watford tried to force the ball into tight end Zach Swanson. The third one, though, turned into a dagger.
Two plays after a touchdown pass to Terrell was negated by a penalty on tight end Jake McGee, Watford overthrew Terrell in the end zone with a pass that sailed directly into the hands of Oregon cornerback Dior Mathis. He returned it 97 yards and the Ducks punched the ball in for their final touchdown seconds later.
“It was my fault. I saw something different than what [Terrell] saw,” Watford said. “We have to be on the same page. I’m not blaming him at all. It wasn’t his fault. I threw the pass. It was behind him and they picked it off. We just got to learn from it.”
Watford did say he got some comfort from being able to speak with Fairchild face-to-face on the sideline, as opposed to the BYU game when Fairchild was in the coaches’ booth calling plays. London is hopeful Watford can grow from this latest outing.
“This’ll be a good week for us to help him find out what we can do to help him be a better football player,” London said of Watford.
4) After showing marked improvement last week, Virginia’s defense and special teams showed some flaws.
As London put it, “They got on us early in every phase.”
Virginia punter Alex Vozenilek averaged 41.3 yards on 13 punts in last week’s win over BYU. On Saturday, his first kick went all of 21 yards and his second one got blocked. That gaffe set up Oregon’s second touchdown of the day.
Defensively, meanwhile, the Cavaliers learned on the first drive of the game just how potent Oregon can be. Facing third and five, the Ducks went with a five-receiver formation, noticed a gap in Virginia’s front seven and quarterback Marcus Mariota took off untouched on a 71-yard touchdown run. Oregon Coach Mark Helfrich told reporters exactly what happened after the game.
“We knew they weren’t going to play us like they played BYU, and they didn’t,” he said. “They played us completely different, and we anticipated some of that, and made some changes on the fly and our guys did a great job feeling that out.”
Virginia did itself no favors by allowing Oregon to start at its own 40-yard line or better eight times over the course of Saturday’s game.
Still, the Ducks gained 557 yards of total offense and averaged 8.8 yards per carry. A week after a dominating performance against BYU, the Cavaliers’ blitz-heavy defense finished with just three tackles for a loss and no sacks. It was the most points Virginia has given up since Illinois scored 63 in a 1999 game.
“We had a game plan that we were supposed to cut off the edge, but a lot of times we didn’t get a chance to because of blown assignments,” linebacker Daquan Romero said.
5) The Cavaliers got the litmus test they were looking for the past two games.
The consensus before this season began was that if Virginia could enter its initial bye week with a 1-1 record, the Cavaliers would be right on track in terms of getting back to a bowl game. Well, after two games, that’s exactly where the program finds itself.
Perhaps more importantly, playing teams the caliber of BYU (which as I write this is giving Texas all it can handle) and Oregon has provided London and company plenty of film to look at as they try to develop an identity under a new coaching staff. Chances are the Ducks are the best opponent Virginia will face all year, although Clemson might have something to say about that.
And there certainly were some positives Saturday, like holding Oregon to 3 of 10 on third-down conversions, defensive tackle Brent Urban’s fourth-down goal line stand to end the first half and the tight end combination of McGee and Zach Swanson.
Virginia may have suffered a humbling blowout, but the players came away with a positive outlook on what the future could hold.
“It didn’t go how we wanted, but I didn’t feel like we couldn’t compete with them,” McGee said. “While it was a 50-point win or whatever, it didn’t seem, at least on the sideline, that it was that far off.”