Offensive Line Showing Signs of Progress
Oct. 9, 2012
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Critics pounced after UVa’s second football game of the season, a 17-16 win in which Penn State missed four field goals at Scott Stadium. One of the main targets was a rebuilt offensive line that, against the Nittany Lions, failed to open holes for the running backs and struggled to protect the quarterbacks.
The Cavaliers rushed for a paltry 32 yards (on 25 carries), allowed three sacks and finished with only 295 yards of offense that day. That was not a satisfactory performance, and offensive line coach Scott Wachenheim’s charges admitted as much.
Since then, however, the line has shown steady improvement, even if Virginia’s overall record doesn’t reflect it. To wit:
* Sept. 15, in a 56-20 loss at Georgia Tech, UVa rushed for 98 yards and gained 297 in all. The line gave up two sacks.
* Sept. 22, in a 27-7 loss at TCU, the Wahoos ran for 164 yards, gained 353 overall and allowed one sack.
* Sept. 29, in a 44-38 loss to still-unbeaten Louisiana Tech, UVa totaled 625 yards — 145 of them on the ground — and gave up one sack.
* Most recently, in a 42-17 loss at Duke on Saturday, Virginia ran for 186 yards and finished with 461 overall. The `Hoos allowed one sack.
“There’s no question that the guys are getting better,” junior center Luke Bowanko told reporters Monday at John Paul Jones Arena.
“I’ve said it before, that you can’t really duplicate game-time situations and speed and teams’ adjustments and all that stuff in practice. It was going to take time. It does for every team. It’s a matter of how long it takes you to adjust. But I think the guys have done a great job.”
From a 2011 team that finished 8-5, UVa returned three starting offensive linemen: senior Oday Aboushi and juniors Morgan Moses and Bowanko. Aboushi and Moses remained at left tackle and right tackle, respectively, but Bowanko moved from right guard to center. Junior Sean Cascarano, a converted tackle, took over at right guard, and sophomore Cody Wallace started the Sept. 1 opener against Richmond at left guard.
Wallace suffered an ankle injury against the Spiders, however, and classmate Conner Davis replaced him in the starting lineup for the Penn State game. Davis has remained with the first group, but Wallace, healthy again, rotates in regularly. Also, redshirt freshman Ross Burbank recently moved from center to right guard, and he replaced Cascarano on several series against Duke.
“The two new guards, three new guards — I don’t even know many are playing at this point — they’re doing a good job taking the coaching,” Bowanko said, “and they’re showing improvement every week. It shows up on film and in the stats — the rushing categories — and the quarterbacks are staying off the ground for the most part.”
Burbank wasn’t the only redshirt freshman to see time on the O-line at Wallace Wade Stadium. When Moses had to leave the game early in the second quarter, Jay Whitmire replaced him at right tackle.
“Those two guys had a chance to play and perform at a level that’s encouraging,” head coach Mike London said Sunday night when asked about Burbank and Whitmire.
Whitmire, a graduate of T.C. Williams High in Alexandria, is listed at 6-6, 295 pounds. The 6-4, 285-pound Burbank was a standout wrestler at Cox High in Virginia Beach. As a heavyweight, he won the Group AAA title in 2010 and helped the Falcons capture the state team championship. As a senior in 2011, Burbank placed third at the Group AAA tournament.
“I’ve been close with Burbank since he’s gotten here, pretty much,” Bowanko said, “and I’m trying to work with him on his footwork and stuff, this year especially, because he’s my backup [at center], and we communicate a lot. It was good for him to have that relationship with me going into [the Duke game], and I tried to help him out a little bit. He had a lot of stuff figured out on his own. He’s a real smart kid, and he watches the other guys in front of him.”
At guard, “I wouldn’t say he’s a natural,” Bowanko said with a smile, “because it’s hard to step into that role and produce, but I think he did a great job last week in practice, and he came in the game and produced and fought. That’s one thing you get with Ross: Even if he messes up the assignment or something like that, he’s going to fight till the end. I don’t know if it’s his wrestling background or whatever, but he’ll fight you, he’ll wrestle you. I was proud of Ross going out there and getting his plays and doing his job.”
Of the 120 teams that compete in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision, UVa ranks 45th in total offense (429.3 yards per game). In the all-important category of scoring offense, though, the `Hoos are 91st (23.7 points per game).
“So there’s a renewed sense of being able to run the ball, move the ball,” London said Monday. “But at the same time, we need to increase our scoring opportunities.”
Statistically, the Cavaliers weren’t much different in 2011 — they finished the season ranked 46th in total offense and 86th in scoring offense — but more often than not they delivered at critical points in games.
“It’s been interesting,” said Bowanko, a Baltimore Orioles cap on his head, “because last year when we needed a play, we made the play, and it wasn’t something that you really pushed for or stressed about. You didn’t talk about it … The play just got made. It’s difficult this year. You’re standing there watching, and things just aren’t going your way four games in a row. It’s tough, especially after the Penn State game, when everything went our way. But maybe we used [the good luck] all up.”
Turnovers continue to hurt the `Hoos, who have thrown 10 interceptions and lost five fumbles this season. Penalties also have been a problem at times, though Virginia was more disciplined at Duke.
Overall, though, “I don’t think there’s any dramatic shift to be made, honestly,” Bowanko said. “I think we’re close offensively. I don’t get to see much of the defense and I can’t really speak much on that. But offensively I don’t think it’s any dramatic shift that needs to be made. I think it’s a play here or a play there, an assignment here. We’re real close to really hitting on all cylinders, and I think one of these games – it might be this week, it might be the next week – we might be able to put up a complete performance, and that’s what we’re working towards: four quarters of football. We’re definitely capable of it.”
Bowanko said the players have been reminding themselves that each must deliver when called upon.
“You can’t wait for it to happen,” Bowanko said. “You can’t sit on it. You gotta make it happen. You gotta grab the spotlight. It could be the fourth-and-1 play or it could be the third-and-3 play where we only get 2 yards.
“It’s not always the big play that at the end of the game you look at and you’re like, `Dang, we missed that.’ Guys need to make the plays when Coach calls their numbers, whatever the down and distance, because they all matter. At this point we can’t wait around for them to happen, hope for them to happen. We gotta make them happen.”
Virginia’s next opportunity comes Saturday at 3 p.m. In its Homecomings game, UVa (2-4 overall, 0-2 ACC) hosts Maryland (3-2, 1-0) at Scott Stadium.
“This weekend’s a big game,” Bowanko said. “There’s no hiding it. Maryland’s a big rival. Right now this is the biggest game of our year. This is our bowl game. We gotta make our move.”
The Cavaliers won 31-13 in College Park last fall and have taken four of the past five games in this series. Still, UVa tailback Perry Jones said, the Terrapins are “not the same team that we played last year. We know we have a tough challenge this year.”
Maryland, in its second season under head coach Randy Edsall, has a new defensive coordinator, Brian Stewart, who installed a 3-4 scheme.
It’s working well. The Terps rank seventh nationally in rushing defense, seventh in total defense, 15th in pass defense and 33rd in scoring defense.
“They changed their defensive scheme up a little bit,” Jones noted Monday, “but we’re really not worried about their statistics and what they rank in the nation, because ultimately it’s going to come down to what we do.”
NO LOVE LOST: Eleven Cavaliers are from Maryland, not including Bowanko, who was born in Annapolis but grew up in Northern Virginia.
The Maryland contingent at UVa includes wide receivers Darius Jennings (Baltimore) and E.J. Scott (Ellicott City), return specialist Khalek Shepherd (Upper Marlboro), safety Brandon Phelps (Damascus), tight end Jeremiah Mathis (Bowie) and tight end Colter Phillips (Darnestown).
For many of those players, Bowanko said, Maryland is their Virginia Tech — the opponent they would most like to defeat.
ROUGH ROAD: Of Virginia’s opponents to date, only Georgia Tech (2-4) does not have a winning record. The others: Richmond (4-2), Penn State (4-2), TCU (4-1), Louisiana Tech (5-0) and Duke (5-1).
In the latest Associated Press poll, Louisiana Tech is ranked No. 23, and TCU is the first team out.
ROOM TO GROW: After the first start of his college career, UVa quarterback Phillip Sims blamed himself for the offense’s inability to score more against Duke.
“It doesn’t surprise me at all, because he was the same way in high school,” said Jones, who played with Sims at Oscar Smith in Chesapeake.
“He has a lot of confidence in himself, and when something doesn’t go right, he puts it on himself, because ultimately the quarterback is the leader of the offense. He has a sense of pride in himself and he knows that he can be a great player and make all the great throws. It doesn’t surprise me at all, and I only see him getting better from here.”
Nobody else held Sims responsible after the Duke game, least of all offensive coordinator Bill Lazor. Sims, a redshirt sophomore, threw two interceptions in Durham, but he also completed 21 of 42 passes for 268 yards, and he got little help from a receiving corps that’s been prone to drops this season.
Sims is a transfer from Alabama, where he redshirted in 2010 and then backed up starter A.J. McCarron last season. For the first five games this season, Sims played behind Michael Rocco, the Cavaliers’ 2011 starter.
Until Saturday, Sims hadn’t started a game in nearly three years, and that should not be forgotten, Bowanko said.
“There’s definitely plays out there where he’s missing receivers by a hair or whatever it is,” Bowanko said, “and I have confidence that he’ll make those plays as he gets more time.”