By HANK KURZ Jr.
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. —
Virginia is shaking things up trying to get its anemic offense moving.
The Cavaliers had high hopes of making big strides last week, especially since they were facing a Pittsburgh team that had given up 55 points a week earlier against Duke, but things could hardly have gone worse.
In the first quarter alone, quarterback David Watford dropped one snap that the Panthers recovered, and a bouncing hit returner Dominique Terrell that resulted in another turnover.
The mistakes set up two short touchdown drives, and the Panthers won, 14-3.
Watforrd later had a snap sail over his head, and he stepped out of bounds trying to avoid a blocking teammate, turning what could easily have been a 91-yard, momentum-sparking touchdown run into a 19-yard gain.
A similar showing Saturday when high-scoring Ball State (4-1) of the Mid-American Conference comes to Scott Stadium would leave the Cavaliers (2-2) reeling as they head fully into their ACC schedule.
Ball State coach Pete Lembo wouldn’t be surprised to see an improved Virginia on Saturday.
“There’s still a lot of pieces there,” he said of the offense. “My gut is that they’re still figuring out how to best put those pieces together, and we’ll have to see how they want to attack us, but I’m sure they’re going to have a good plan and there’s going to be a sense of urgency to get after us.”
The Falcons average 40 points and 472 yards per game.
“We need to improve in every area in a hurry, myself included,” Cavaliers first-year offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild said as the competition for offensive playing time was thrown wide open.
On the offensive line, where protection has been spotty, the Cavaliers are moving right tackle Jay Whitmire to right guard and inserting freshman Eric Smith into the starting lineup at right tackle.
“We want to send a message that no one gets comfortable,” coach Mike London said.
Watford, meanwhile, wasn’t the only one having a hard time holding onto the ball. When London and his staff graded game film, they counted 10 dropped passes against Pitt, and they managed just 188 yards.
This week, “We’re going to try to roll more people through, not only in practice but in the game to see if we can get a little more consistency going at the wide receiver sports,” Fairchild said.
The coaches have been effusive in their praise for Watford’s leadership, and while his numbers show just a 59 percent completion percentage with six interceptions and three touchdowns, he’s not resting.
On Saturday night, after the team returned from Heinz Field, he and wide receivers Darius Jennings and Terrell worked throwing passes. On Sunday morning, all the receivers came out and did the same thing.
“Even though it was not full speed, just trying to catch, just throwing and catching, because that’s the most important thing, and that’s really what we need to work on,” Watford explained Monday.
Watford also tried to shoulder some of the blame for all the drops, saying that he probably could have placed some of the passes better, and he called this week’s game “a very important game for us.”
It’s time, he said, for the offense to support the defense, which apart from a 59-10 loss to No. 2 Oregon, has been among the best in the country. Virginia allowed just 199 yards against the Panthers, who scored 58 points the previous week, and Pitt’s touchdown drives covered just 19 and 18 yards.
Nationally, Virginia ranks 16th in total defense, allowing 299 yards per game.
“We have to be able to execute,” Watford said. “We can’t depend on them all the time.”