By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — In 1989, UVa’s football team opened with second-ranked Notre Dame and then played No. 12 Penn State nine days later.
In 2002, Virginia opened against a Colorado State team that would finish 10-4, then faced No. 5 Florida State nine days later.
It’s unusual for a college football team to start a season with back-to-back challenges of that magnitude, but UVa did so again this year. After opening Aug. 31 with BYU, which has won at least 10 games in five of the past seven seasons, the Cavaliers hosted second-ranked Oregon on Saturday.
The results were mixed — Virginia rallied for a 19-16 win over BYU and lost 59-10 to Oregon — but head coach Mike London is convinced those games will pay dividends for his team in the coming weeks. Seeing BYU bounce back to humble No. 15 Texas 40-21 on Saturday night only strengthened his belief.
“Playing Oregon was a great experience, a learning opportunity for us,” London said on his Sunday night teleconference. “That’s one of the best teams in college football. We can only get better from that experience, from having played them, and also having played BYU, when you look at what BYU did to Texas.
“I feel more encouraged about where we are right now with who we’ve played and how the guys have played.”
London said he knows “there are some things we have to take care of ourselves, but at the same time there’s a lot of positive plays to look forward to as we go into this open week.”
The Wahoos don’t play again until Sept. 21, when they host VMI at Scott Stadium. (The kickoff time for that game is expected to be announced Monday.) Then comes Virginia’s first road game — and ACC opener — Sept. 28 at Pittsburgh, which joined the conference this year.
“Now we need to take care of ourselves and make sure we do what we need to do and get ready to play the rest of the our schedule,” London said.
For several players, including tailback Khalek Shepherd and cornerback Maurice Canady, that means recovering from ankle injuries. For the offense, defense and special teams units, that means trying to fix the problems that arose in the first two games.
“It’s a good time for us to kind of regroup and get ourselves back to where we want to be and what we need to do in order to be successful,” London said.
New coordinator Jon Tenuta’s defense, so effective in the opener, gave up 557 yards and multiple big plays Saturday against Oregon, whose touchdowns included 71- and 40-yard runs and a 30-yard pass. But the Ducks make a lot of defenses look foolish.
Of greater concern in the McCue Center is Virginia’s offense, which gained only 223 yards against BYU and 298 against Oregon. The Wahoos have scored only three touchdowns this season, the first two of which came on possessions that started inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. Against Oregon, UVa’s TD came on a 45-yard run by Shepherd.
“As an offense we have to improve,” junior tight end Jake McGee said Saturday night at Scott Stadium.
In his first year as a starter, sophomore quarterback David Watford has completed 47 of 73 yards for 275 yards and one TD, with four interceptions. After the BYU game, Watford told reporters that he took full responsibility for the offense’s woes.
“That’s indicative of what type of person and leader that David is, that he wanted to shoulder the blame, but obviously he can’t take the blame on himself,” London said Sunday night.
“David just wants to do what’s best for the team, and I know it’s not just one guy that can shoulder the blame. We all lost the game, and now we all have to find a way to improve and move forward.”
The revamped offensive line, which includes new two starters, has struggled to open holes for Virginia’s running backs. The stout defenses of BYU and Oregon had much to do with that, but London said UVa’s line must improve.
“I would say at this point that we’re still a work in progress there,” London said. “They’ve been challenged, without a doubt. We can do better. We’ll have to do better.”
The left side of the line, with seniors Morgan Moses and Luke Bowanko at tackle and guard, respectively, has been solid. Their counterparts – sophomore center Ross Burbank, junior right guard Conner Davis and sophomore right tackle Jay Whitmire – have been inconsistent.
“You want to be able to knock guys off the ball,” London said. “You want to create opportunities for the running backs to get through those holes. As we move forward, the running game is always going to be something we’re going to emphasize and the ability to run, whether it’s up the middle, whether it’s off-tackle, whether it’s on the perimeter.
“We have to be able to block. We have to be able to run-block in order to be successful in the other phases of throwing the ball and play-action passes off of the running attack.”
Watford, one of the fastest players on the team, flashed his speed Saturday, scrambling for a 10-yard gain in the second quarter and then for 5 yards early in the fourth. But there have been few called runs for Watford, who has netted 18 yards (including losses on sacks) on 18 carries this season. That may change.
“We want to make sure we run with aggressiveness and run the ball,” London said. “We have to be able to do that. And if that requires maybe using him more as a running threat or doing some other things to get the ball in the hands of some of our guys on the perimeter, then we’ll do that.”
London later said: “I know that David has the abilities to add an added dimension in terms of what defenses have to defend … We will attempt to make sure that David, if it’s his feet, if it’s on the edge, if it’s wherever it may be, that we utilize his abilities to the max.”
With a few exceptions — most notably, Darius Jennings’ touchdown catch against BYU — UVa’s wide receivers have given Watford little help. They’ve made the routine catches, but drops have been common.
Oregon’s cornerbacks, among the nation’s best, played press coverage on Virginia’s wideouts, who combined for only 41 yards on their 10 receptions.
“If you’re going to play a team like that,” London said, “then you have to be able to make those tough catches, because those defenders are all over top of you. So [the QB has] to place the ball, but we also have to catch the ball and understand that you’re going to have to make those catches with a DB on your back or throwing to go through your arms to knock the ball down.
“Again, that’s something that we will spend time on as we go through this open period and get everyone on the same page, because you’re always going to see the different kind of coverages, off-man, press-man, zone … If the receivers are on, then David can be on. If we’re both on the same page, then I think obviously we’ll be a much more efficient offense.”
As much as the blowout loss to Oregon stung, the `Hoos were not despondent Saturday night. At 1-1, UVa is well-positioned as it prepares for the rest of the regular season.
“We gotta go over film, look at what we could do better, and just continue to move forward,” junior safety Anthony Harris said at Scott Stadium. “Gotta bounce back.”