Here are five observations from Virginia’s 14-3 loss at Pittsburgh on Saturday:
1. Virginia’s offense isn’t very good, and personnel changes appear to be on the way.
Three touchdowns. That’s what the Cavaliers have mustered in three games against Football Bowl Subdivision teams this year. When Virginia beat BYU and then became the latest team to get steamrolled by Oregon, it was easier to dismiss.
Not anymore. Murmurs about offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild’s vanilla play-calling have become screams, and one fan even started a Twitter account (@UVAOCSTINKS) demanding he be fired. Even when Coach Mike London announced changes could be on the way, he also seemed resigned to the notion that the Cavaliers won’t be able to count on an explosive offense this year.
“If you play good defense, don’t shoot yourself by making mistakes on offense and take care of the special teams . . . you can be a good team and we’ve got to strive to get that done,” he said said.
For the record, this reporter thinks four games is too early to fire an offensive coordinator just hired this offseason, especially because Virginia’s issues Saturday were more than just the plays being called.
Quarterback David Watford struggled with his decision-making, and when he did fire a good pass, more often than not one of his wide receivers could not haul in the catch. The right side of the offensive line, meanwhile, was in disarray with starter Conner Davis again sidelined by injury, and Watford needed to scramble or elude a pass rush on the majority of his passing attempts.
As the second half progressed, the Cavaliers increasingly turned to taller wide receivers like Adrian Gamble and Miles Gooch with starters Darius Jennings and Tim Smith struggling. Redshirt freshman Jackson Matteo replaced center Ross Burbank after several bad snaps in the first half and freshman guard Eric Tetlow was in the game for Virginia’s 15-play, 77-yard drive in the fourth quarter.
London said more changes could be on the way this week as the Cavaliers prepare to face Ball State.
That said, Fairchild’s play-calling remains far too predictable and conservative, particularly during the Cavaliers’ critical short-yardage situations Saturday. Not only did Virginia go 3 for 18 on third down overall Saturday, the Cavaliers went 2 for 9 on third downs of five yards or less and fourth down.
“You’re frustrated as an offense because you’ve got those guys [Virginia’s defense] working their butt off the whole game and doing everything they’re supposed to,” tight end Jake McGee said. “As an offense, we didn’t get anything going.”
2. Virginia’s defense served notice that it will be among the ACC’s best this season.
There was not much else Virginia’s defense could do Saturday. Aside from a couple great catches, over great coverage, by Pittsburgh wide receivers Tyler Boyd and Devin Street, the Cavaliers completely shut down a Panthers offense that scored 58 points a week ago against Duke.
Virginia sacked Pittsburgh quarterback Tom Savage seven times, the most sacks for a Cavaliers defense since 2006. They also finished with 13 tackles for a loss (four by defensive tackle Brent Urban) and forced three turnovers. The Panthers’ only points came when they had a short field because of Virginia’s own gaffes.
The Cavaliers also seem to have unearthed a new playmaker off the edge. Freshman Max Valles, who was moved to linebacker before the Oregon game because of his blitzing ability, finished with 2.5 sacks.
“We always thought we were a great defense. We have great players and this is kind of shows us what . . . we’re gonna be moving forward,” said defensive tackle David Dean, who had 1.5 sacks. “We saw in the Florida State game [Pittsburgh’s season-opening loss to the Seminoles] that if you put pressure on [Savage] and make him throw under pressure, then he was capable of making bad throws. So I think that’s what our focus was: Just trying to stop the run and pressure him and bait him into bad throws.”
If there was one silver lining from Saturday’s anemic offensive showing, it’s that Virginia’s defense looks to be the sort of outfit will keep the Cavaliers close in every game. Oregon game aside, defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta has worked wonders with this unit.
3. Mike London’s game management remains an issue.
There was plenty of debate in the press box over whether London should have tried to kick field goals in the first half when the Cavaliers faced fourth-and-short situations, particularly since place kicker Ian Frye would have been kicking into the side of Heinz Field that generates swirling winds from the Allegheny River.
But the bottom line is that if Frye makes just one of those two field goals, the Cavaliers are in a one-score game entering the fourth quarter. Then, when Virginia had a chance to extend the game down 14-6 with just less than four minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, London again elected to go for it on fourth down.
When Watford’s pass sailed too high for McGee to corral, Virginia handed the ball over to Pittsburgh down 14-3 and the game was over. Even if you don’t get the onside kick following a field goal, the Panthers would have had to get at least one first down to run the clock out.
London said he consulted with associate head coach Tom O’Brien and running backs coach Larry Lewis when he made the call to go for it. The decision would be easier to overlook if not for London’s track record.
Last year against Virginia Tech, he allowed the Hokies to run down the clock for a game-winning field goal rather than use his timeouts to stop the clock. Helping London with his game management was a big reason why Virginia hired O’Brien this offseason.
And while Saturday’s decisions weren’t as bad as that one last November, London should have a better handle on these sorts of situations at this point.
4. Dominique Terrell’s days as a returner should be numbered.
It was an adventurous day for Terrell, to say the least. On his second punt return of the game, he allowed a bouncing ball to graze his leg when he shouldn’t have even been near it. That led to Pittsburgh’s first touchdown of the game.
On another first-half kickoff, he unintentionally hit a squibbed kickoff and nearly had another turnover. Considering his issues two years ago fielding punts cleanly, it’s a wonder why he continues to get chances back there.
“He’s got to be better at that, or we got to find better.”
A friend on Twitter even reminded me about a 2009 Virginia AAA state playoff game in which a Terrell muffed punt nearly cost Osbourn. Of course, back then, Terrell was so much faster than the competition that he rebounded to account for 271 total yards.
And to Terrell’s credit, he did have a clutch fourth-down catch on Virginia’s lone productive drive of the day during the fourth quarter.
5. The Cavaliers are suddenly staring at an uphill battle in their quest to return to a bowl game.
Road games in the ACC are never gimmes, but with Virginia’s loaded schedule, a win at Pittsburgh would have done wonders for the Cavaliers’ bowl hopes.
Now, Virginia is suddenly looking at a must-win game against a one-loss Ball State team next week, followed by a gantlet of quality ACC teams, including Maryland, Clemson, North Carolina, Georgia Tech, Miami and Virginia Tech. Even with a win over the Cardinals – not guaranteed — the Cavaliers will need to win two of those conference games to get the requisite six wins for the postseason.
And given the way Virginia’s defense played Saturday, London and company wasted a golden opportunity to secure an ever-elusive road victory.