By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — It didn’t always turn yards into points, but coordinator Bill Lazor’s offense, if nothing else, consistently moved the football in UVa’s first six games. And so Virginia’s offensive woes Saturday surprised virtually everyone not wearing NC State red at Scott Stadium.
The Wolfpack, which came in allowing 412 yards and 30 points per game, all but shut down the Cavaliers in this ACC game. In a dispiriting 28-14 loss, UVa produced only 12 first downs and 249 yards. Before Saturday, the Wahoos had totaled at least 19 first downs and 360 yards in each game.
In the postgame press conference Saturday night, London was asked what had happened to UVa’s offense.
“I don’t know,” London said. “That’s a good question. It was disappointing. Too many turnovers, for sure. Too many turnovers that led to points. You can’t do that against a very fast, good, athletic team.”
NC State (1-2 ACC, 4-3 overall) has been ravaged by injuries, and its top wide receiver, senior T.J. Graham, missed the first half Saturday for disciplinary reasons. But cornerback David Amerson, an All-America candidate, was healthy throughout, and he led a swarming State defense that befuddled Virginia quarterbacks Michael Rocco and David Watford.
“I commend them for their preparation this week,” said Watford, who completed only 4 of 16 passes, for 89 yards, and was intercepted three times.
Preparation wasn’t the only thing State had in its favor, Watford said. “It seemed like they wanted it more than we did. Not saying that we didn’t want it, but they had that hunger for it that was kind of missing for us today.”
Moments earlier, London had made a similar observation about his former boss Tom O’Brien’s Wolfpack.
“They played hungry,” said London, who was an assistant under O’Brien at Boston College. “They played inspired. And I’m not saying we didn’t. But we didn’t play well enough, and inspired enough and hungry enough to affect the game as it was played out.”
Amerson picked off two passes, the second of which he returned for a touchdown with 6:08 remaining. The PAT made it 28-14, at which point many of the home fans in the crowd of 46,030 headed to the exits, bummed that UVa had squandered an opportunity to build on its Oct. 15 win over then-No. 12 Georgia Tech.
“People want to feel good about the program, and we will,” London said. “But these are tremendous learning pains when you’re coming off the euphoria of a really good game, and then you see how devastating turnovers can be.”
Against the Yellow Jackets, the ‘Hoos rushed for 272 yards, many coming on runs to the outside. State took those plays away. UVa (1-2, 4-3) rushed for a modest 124 yards Saturday and gained only 33 on the ground in the second half.
“I think the difference was that we stayed in our gaps,” O’Brien, a former Virginia assistant, said after his first game at Scott Stadium since 1996. “A lot of their stuff [against Georgia Tech] came at the perimeter, and that was one thing we weren’t going to let them do. If they gashed us, it was going to be inside.”
A win Saturday would have significantly bolstered the Cavaliers’ chances of becoming bowl-eligible for the first time in 2007. Now Virginia must win two of its five remaining regular-season games.
“Our schedule doesn’t get any easier,” London said.
Next up for the Cavaliers are the Miami Hurricanes, who hammered Georgia Tech 24-7 on Saturday in South Florida. In a game ESPN will broadcast, UVa plays at Miami (2-2, 4-3) at 8 p.m. Thursday. The ‘Canes are in their first season under former Virginia assistant Al Golden.
“Mentally it’s always tough, because you think about things that could have been and didn’t happen,” London said. “But you have to turn it around, because you have another nationally televised game against a team that’s looking to win and wants to win and is playing at home. There are no other alternatives. This is what competition in athletics is about.
“We’ll see. We’ll see how resilient we can be, how we can turn around a short week and get prepared to go on the road and play a very, very good and athletic Miami team.”
On a spectacular fall afternoon, UVa went three-and-out on each of its first two series Saturday. But after senior cornerback Chase Minnifield blocked NC State kicker Niklas Sade’s 41-yard field-goal attempt, Virginia took over at its 28 and finally got its offense moving.
The drive included a 14-yard completion to senior wideout Kris Burd from sophomore Michael Rocco, the Cavaliers’ starting quarterback. It ended with Rocco’s 6-yard touchdown pass to true freshman tailback Clifton Richardson, whose reception was the first of his college career.
At that point, Rocco was 7 for 9 passing and appeared to have settled into a rhythm. Lazor has been using two quarterbacks all season, however, and on Virginia’s next series, with the score 7-7, Watford replaced Rocco.
Watford’s first pass went directly to Amerson at the Virginia 33. A play later, quarterback Michael Glennon hit wideout Bryan Underwood, who had beaten true freshman cornerback Demetrious Nicholson, for a 33-yard touchdown, and the Pack was ahead to stay.
Rocco went back in on Virginia’s next possession, and he played the first three series of the second half. But after his TD toss to Richardson, Rocco didn’t complete another pass. He came in having completed 62.6 percent of his attempts this season but was only 7 for 19 against the Wolfpack.
“I’m certain no one’s more disappointed than he is on that,” Lazor said. “There are all different ways to get a quarterback going, and in the end, as a quarterback, sometimes you gotta get yourself going, because you can’t control all of the situations that come up in a game. But I have great faith that Mike is going to be more productive again. He’ll come back out, he’ll battle through it, and I’ll do a better job helping him find plays that can get the ball rolling, and we’ll get better.”
Rocco said: “I just missed a couple easy ones. They were doing a good job on defense, but we had open ones that I should have hit, and I take responsibility for it. Just gotta get better over this short week that we have and get ready for Miami.”
State’s offense was far from perfect. Glennon threw two interceptions — senior safeties Rodney McLeod and Corey Mosley each had a pick for Virginia — and his receivers dropped several passes that might have blown this game open. But Glennon, who’s from Northern Virginia, finished 20 of 36 for 231 yards and three TDs, and the Cavaliers’ quarterbacks didn’t come close to matching his production.
“Obviously, everybody saw that it wasn’t good enough,” London said of his team’s play behind center.
Like Rocco, Watford threw a touchdown pass, and it was a beauty, a bomb that sophomore wideout Tim Smith caught in stride at State’s 15 on a play that covered 60 yards late in the third quarter. But Virginia’s quarterbacks were a combined 11 for 35 passing for only 125 yards. In a game when the ‘Hoos struggled to run the ball, they needed their passing game to be sharp, and it wasn’t. Two of Watford’s interceptions came on passes bounced off his targets’ hands.
“I really did expect a better effort [from the offense],” Lazor said.
Coming off a sensational performance against Georgia Tech, Virginia’s defense played well for much of the game Saturday. The ‘Hoos, led by linebackers Steve Greer and LaRoy Reynolds and tackle Matt Conrath, forced the Pack to punt seven times in the second half and allowed only 114 yards rushing overall.
The Cavaliers never sacked Glennon, however, and the game turned on a breakdown by senior cornerback Dom Joseph late in the third quarter. On third-and-10 from State’s 21, Glennon fired a pass to Underwood, who caught the ball near the right sideline at the 32. Underwood slipped Joseph’s tackle attempt and then sprinted untouched along the sideline to complete a 79-yard scoring play.
A play later, UVa answered with Watford’s 60-yard TD pass, but that proved to be the last highlight on a long day for Lazor’s offense.
“Honestly,” Watford said, “it was frustrating, but you want to stay positive with the offense, because we could score at any point, as we saw with the deep ball to Tim. It was like we were trying so hard, but they were just more prepared than we were today. So we just have to come back with the same taste in our mouth, the taste of this loss, and we just have to use that as motivation and prepare better next week and just work harder in practice.”
It was still a seven-point game when UVa got the ball back at its 4-yard line with 6:19 to play. On first down, though, Watford threw an incompletion at the feet of true freshman wideout Darius Jennings. On second down, Watford threw an accurate pass, but the ball bounced off Smith’s hands and into the air. Amerson did the rest, gathering in his eighth interception of the season and returning it 12 yards to the end zone.
So it went Saturday for a UVa offense that came in averaging 26.7 points and 433.8 yards.
“We’ll have to go back and just look at who we are, what we want to be,” London said. “Be true to being a two-back offense with play-action passing off of that, because that’s what we’ve shown we have a capability of doing.”