Virginia QB David Watford has more interceptions (6) than touchdowns (3). His total passing yardage is only 57 yards more than what Tom Savage threw in the Duke game. At the same time he hasn’t had to do too much. The BYU affair was a wet, downpour of a mess. Oregon destroyed them and against VMI there was limited point in passing when you are rolling up over 300 yards on the ground.
David Watford completed 47 passes in Virginia’s first two games this season, versus Brigham Young and Oregon. None gained more than 20 yards, a conservative approach that left fans, and perhaps players and coaches, far too cranky by September standards.
Which explains Watford’s reaction to his 38-yard touchdown connection to Tim Smith in last week’s 49-0 pasting of VMI.
“A breath of fresh air,” Watford said Monday at Scott Stadium as the Cavaliers continued preparations for their ACC opener Saturday at Pittsburgh.
And guess what people are thinking about for Saturday.
A breath that needs to become at least an occasional breeze, a breath that could become gale-force against the Panthers.
Last season Pitt ranked among the nation’s top 25 in scoring defense, total defense and pass defense. With eight returning starters, including three in the secondary, that group figured to be an asset in 2013.
Under new coordinator Matt House — he succeeded Dave Huxtable, who took the same position at North Carolina State — the Panthers (2-1, 1-0 ACC) are 122nd, next-to-last, in pass efficiency defense. Only Florida International (0-4) is worse.
So if Watford, Smith and other receivers such as Darius Jennings and Dominique Terrell, not to mention tight end Jake McGee, are determined to go vertical with the passing game, now is the time. McGee, for example, leads the 2-1 Cavaliers with 14 receptions, none longer than 11 yards, with a paltry 5.8 average, less than half his 13.4 norm of last season.
“That’s something we really look to do,” Watford said, “that vertical passing game. … Letting the guys go make plays. … I know Tim can make that play. He’s done it numerous times in practice. Just to be able to do it on the field, in a game where it actually counts, that’s the most important thing. We’re definitely looking to do it more. Not just with Tim, but with Darius, Dominique and all of our wide receivers, because they’re all home-run hitters.”
Watford’s assessment of his teammates is predictably kind, but the truth is, none has emerged as a consistent deep target at any point in his career. A first-time starter this season, Watford is another variable in the equation — he needs to become more comfortable with the longer routes at his disposal.
“I can’t lie,” Watford said. “I have struggled with that, just being able to stretch the ball downfield. And it’s not that I lack the confidence, or we don’t have the playmakers. It’s just something you have to work on. People see it on Sundays (in the NFL) or Saturdays (in college games), people just throwing the ball and people catching it.
“But there’s a lot more behind it than that. … There’s a lot of work that goes into it. We’ve definitely been working on it, and that’s something we’ve been really stressing these last couple of weeks.”
I’d be okay if they try to stretch the field more. I’m more concerned about short and medium passes to the tight ends or running backs that will call on the linebackers to be in coverage. Frankly, the bigger concern has been quarterbacks that move on the ground.
In the last two games, over half the rushing yards were generated by the quarterbacks. Being unable to stop quarterbacks running with the ball has contributed significantly to a rushing defense that is ranked in the lower quarter of 1-A.
Not to worry, in the first three games, Watford has only run the ball for 48 total yards. Even against the overmatched VMI, he only ran for 30 yards.
It’s just that I can’t help but worry that Virginia is going to look to be a little more active with Watford on the ground rather than deep.
On running the read option, a look Virginia showed for the first time in last week’s victory over VMI: “(It) wasn’t the same kind of read (in high school). I was keeping it either way. It was a designed run, so I would just fake it and keep it, and I’d have a pulling guard (to follow). So it was a much easier read. But now, I’ve had to learn how to read the defensive end, just his body language, his eyes, and stuff like that. I feel a lot more comfortable with it now than I did at first. We’ve continually repped it in practice.”
Watford rushed for 791 yards as a senior at Hampton, 379 as a junior. But with 48 yards in three games this season, and 42 in 10 games as a freshman in 2011, Virginia fans have yet to see the speed he displayed in high school, a subject that he discussed recently with teammate Daquan Romero, a Peninsula District rival at Phoebus.
“I just have to trust my speed,” Watford said. “(Romero) was just like, `Just trust your speed, like we were in high school.’ Because in high school I would trust my speed, I would split defenders and make people miss and just run. But now I’m trying to find holes and lanes instead of just running. My coach is telling me the same thing: ‘Just run. You’re fast for a reason, so just run.’ ”
Which means Pitt defensive coaches won’t have too much tape on Watford running the read option. Which, given the work by DC Matt House to date, is hardly inspiring. Speaking of hardly inspiring…
One note on the defense: safety Jason Hendricks hinted that some of the defenses struggles could be tied to the transition to new defensive coordinator Matt House‘s scheme, particularly with the linebackers.
“The linebackers, they have different jobs, different fits, the language is a little different, but I think the guys are working hard to get better at it,” he said.
Now let’s take this with some context. There are a lot of factors in the defensive struggles, but this is the first time I recall a player even getting at any significant differences between this year’s scheme and last year’s. Hendricks (echoing Chryst) also said that a lot of the issues can be traced to guys trying to do too much. Basically, they see a teammate they thing is out of position and they go over to try and help, but really all that does is make two guys out of position.
“I think people are just worried about other people,” Hendricks said. “You need to worry about your job and your job only. If you do your job, then the person next to you is going to do their job.”
House has a scheme?
I don’t know. This is just my thoughts (and biases) right now, but that makes me think that House is trying to be too clever by half. Rather than work from what was in place last year under Huxtable, DC House is trying to show how smart a football mind he has and change things — down to the terminology — that just made things more confusing.
As much as the offense benefits from new guys at new spots, the offense clearly has improved in no small part because of the continuity of the coaches and what they wanted to do. Guys who have been practicing and learning the same system going back to last year. Even if they didn’t get on the field.