By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — For the three seasons that Mike Groh served as offensive coordinator at his alma mater, UVa struggled mightily to consistently move the ball and score points.
In 2008, for example, the Cavaliers ranked 114th nationally — out of 119 teams — in scoring offense and 105th in total offense.
After the season, Al Groh replaced his son with Gregg Brandon, a former head coach known for overseeing productive offenses. Brandon brought his trademark spread offense with him from Bowling Green, and dramatic improvement was expected from UVa’s attack.
Two games into the new season, however, the Cavaliers are 0-2, and their offense has been no better under Brandon than it was under Mike Groh.
In losses to William and Mary and Texas Christian, UVa has totaled 28 points, 19 first downs and 445 yards. Virginia ranks 112th nationally (out of 120 teams) in total offense and 103rd in scoring offense.
“Obviously, we definitely thought we’d be further along,” offensive tackle Will Barker said Saturday night after UVa’s 30-14 loss to TCU at Scott Stadium.
“We’ve had a lot of time to get this offense going and understand it. You can’t really use that as an excuse anymore. We all know the offense. We can run it in practice and all that, but when it comes to Saturday, we really gotta focus and execute.”
Perhaps expectations were unrealistic. From a 2008 offense that wasn’t particularly effective, after all, Virginia lost its top six performers: tailback Cedric Peerman, wide receivers Kevin Ogletree, Maurice Covington and Cary Koch, tight end John Phillips and tackle Eugene Monroe.
Still, Al Groh said Sunday night, he believes there’s enough talent in the program for Brandon’s system to thrive.
“We have two circumstances here,” Groh said. “We have a number of players on our offensive side who have a history of being successful. And we have an offensive system that has a history of being successful.
“Both of those circumstances, either with the players or with the system, are very verifiable. That doesn’t belie the fact that, sure, with the lack of production that we’ve had, everyone in here has got concern about where we are. The challenge is to match some of these productive players with what has been a productive system.”
One of the Wahoos who figured to play a leading role in Brandon’s offense — quarterback Vic Hall — didn’t take a snap against TCU. Hall, who started and ran for a touchdown against William and Mary, has a hip injury, and he may not play this weekend at Southern Mississippi (2-0).
Virginia has an open date Sept. 26, and Hall might be held out of the Southern Miss game to get healthy.
“That’s the likely case, but we have some further exams scheduled for earlier in the week,” Groh said, “and that’s going to give everybody a much clearer picture of where this situation is.”
On opening night, UVa used three quarterbacks — Hall, Jameel Sewell and Marc Verica. Against TCU, Sewell, a fifth-year senior who started 22 games in 2006 and ’07, took all the snaps, and he may well do so in Hattiesburg, Miss., too.
“The reality is that right now it looks like he’s going to be the quarterback,” Groh said.
Verica is a more accurate passer than Sewell, but Sewell is the more mobile of the two. Given the woes of UVa’s offensive line, which allowed eight sacks Saturday night, that’s no small consideration. Had Sewell not been able to occasionally evade the pass rush, TCU might have sacked him a dozen times.
Sewell, a 6-3, 225-pound fifth-year senior, ran the ball 21 times, the most by a UVa quarterback since “Bullet Bill” Dudley’s 22 rushes against Lehigh on Nov. 15, 1941.
What Sewell, who passed for 2,176 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2007, didn’t do often Saturday night was throw the ball downfield. He finished 8 for 18 passing, for 120 yards, but 82 of those yards came in the final 4:14, after TCU had gone up 30-0.
For the most of the game, when Sewell threw, his target was nearby. The Cavaliers’ breakdowns in pass protection forced Brandon to call plays, Groh said, that didn’t involve deep drops in the pocket.
“Once those issues came up, when you call the game, that clearly has to be taken into account,” Groh said. “That made it pretty difficult from a play-selection standpoint.”
During the Southern California-Ohio State game Saturday night, Groh said, he was struck by how often the announcers referred to “all the weapons” those teams had.
Call them “firepower, weapons, playmakers” or whatever, Groh said, those players change the outcomes of games. And Virginia had no one who filled that role Saturday night until the final minutes.
Sewell threw a 56-yard touchdown pass to wideout Javaris Brown, a redshirt freshman, with 4:14 remaining. That was UVa’s longest pass play since Nov. 26, 2005. Then Sewell threw a 26-yard TD pass to wideout Tim Smith, a true freshman.
“That’s the big thing,” Groh said. “Playmakers put the points up there, and we had two real good playmakers at the end of the game. Javaris and Tim Smith had to go get the ball.
“When guys can go and do that for your team, and you get somebody to do that on one special-teams play for you, and you get one interception, then all of the sudden you got 28 points, and you got a very good-looking scoreboard.”
It’s been nearly 11 months since the scoreboard looked good for UVa. Not since Oct. 25, 2008, have the ‘Hoos scored more than 17 points in a game. That was also the last time they won, beating No. 21 Georgia Tech 24-17 in Atlanta.
“Defense has to score points, offense has to score points,” senior cornerback Chris Cook said Saturday night. “As a team, we have to score points. That’s what wins game: points. We just got to somehow come up with some points.”
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Riko Smalls, who came to UVa in 2008 as quarterback, moved to wide receiver this summer. With Hall sidelined, Smalls moved back to quarterback before the TCU game, to give UVa a third option at that position.
Smalls, a 6-0, 200-pound redshirt freshman, will remain at QB for the time being.
“We’ll see what happens when Vic gets back,” Groh said.
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Redshirt freshman Torrey Mack, the No. 2 tailback for Virginia against William and Mary, barely played versus TCU. He caught one pass for 7 yards in the final minute and didn’t carry the ball.
Virginia’s offensive strategy was to use almost all of the play clock before most snaps. That didn’t have the desired effect, as the final score indicates, and it reduced the impact of several players, including Mack.
“First of all, it was one of those games where there didn’t seem to be enough plays offensively to get everybody some of the work that we’d gone in hoping to get them,” Groh said. “Down around 50 plays, that cuts into how all the rotations are going to go.”
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Virginia’s most experienced offensive lineman, Barker, was matched against TCU All-American Jerry Hughes.
Hughes, a 6-3, 257-pound senior, finished with a career-high 11 tackles. He was credited with 2.5 tackles for loss, including 1.5 sacks.
Barker, a four-year starter at right tackle, was “pretty decent” against Hughes, Groh said.
“The one sack he gave up at the end of the first half, and another pressure when the guy beat him inside, those were the two where he really got challenged on and got beat on,” Groh said. “You can say those are only two, but by the same token, if you only have two a game, that’s 24 for the year, and then that’s a lot at one spot.”
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The coaching staff’s choice as Virginia’s defensive player of the game was end Matt Conrath, a 6-7, 270-pound redshirt sophomore.
Conrath was officially credited with eight tackles, including two for loss. One was his first sack of the season.
“I told him, ‘Look, I don’t care who that [TCU offensive tackle] plays against this year or where they come from. He’s not going to have any nights any more difficult than the one you gave him,'” Groh said.