By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Virginia Military Institute is not to be confused with Oregon on the football field, and nobody at UVa is pretending otherwise this week. Still, the Cavaliers (1-1) are not altering their routine as they prepare to meet the Keydets (1-2) for the first time since 2010.
At 3:30 p.m. Saturday, Virginia hosts VMI at Scott Stadium.
“Practice is really just about getting ourselves better and working on the fundamentals and just focusing on getting better every day,” senior defensive Brent Urban told reporters Monday at John Paul Jones Arena. “It doesn’t really matter who we’re playing. We’re going to prepare the same way.”
The Keydets, who compete in the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision, are coming off a 37-24 loss to Division II North Greenville. VMI’s win was over another Division II opponent, Glenville State.
Even so, head coach Mike London said, his team won’t be overconfident Saturday.
“Trust me,” London said, “we have the coaches on the staff to make sure that [the players] all understand the most important game for us right now is this game, particularly coming off the bye, particularly coming off issues that we have to address as a football team.”
UVa, which was off this past weekend, opened Aug. 31 with a 19-16 win over BYU at Scott Stadium. A week later, also in Charlottesville, Virginia lost 59-10 to No. 2 Oregon.
Each of those teams posted an impressive victory a week after playing Virginia. BYU whipped Texas 40-21, and Oregon thumped Tennessee 59-14.
The `Hoos felt a little better about their Sept. 7 game after “seeing [the Ducks] put a similar performance forward and knowing they’re going to do that consistently,” Urban said.
As for the Cougars’ win over the Longhorns, that “was nice to see as well,” Urban said, smiling.
Virginia’s defense, superb against BYU, surrendered 557 yards against Oregon.
“It was tough, obviously, but tough things are going to happen during the season,” Urban said. “It’s just how we respond. It was early in the year, and I’m sure we’ll be ready for the rest of the season.”
The bye week also helped the Wahoos get “our confidence back,” Urban said. “Oregon’s obviously a great team. We made a lot of mistakes, but ones that are fixable, and we went over that a lot in practice [last] week. I think it was a good learning experience, and it’ll help us moving forward.”
POINT OF EMPHASIS: In its first season under coordinator Steve Fairchild, UVa’s offense has struggled to move the ball consistently. The Cavaliers have not made “wholesale changes” in their offense since the Oregon game, London said Monday, but he indicated that quarterback David Watford, one of the team’s fastest players, is likely to run more as the season progresses.
Watford, a redshirt sophomore from Hampton, has netted 18 yards on 18 carries this season. He’s completed 47 of 73 passes for 275 yards and one touchdown, with four interceptions.
“One of the things that we had to address [during the bye week] is also using David as an option to run the ball as well,” London said, “so teams have to defend the field, not only vertically and horizontally, but know where he is at all times. There were some things that we could do to allow him to do that. He’s talented enough to be able to do that, and we did a lot of things to focus on that.”
The coaching staff has encouraged Watford to look for opportunities to run, London said.
On third-and-5 or third-and-6, for example, Watford “wants to do what’s right and what’s called for,” London said. “But at the same time, he can use his athleticism and make those decisions himself. So we’re going to empower him to do those types of things and let him use some of his athletic ability.”
The ‘Hoos also need more production in the vertical passing game. “We spent a lot of time getting those receivers down field throwing the ball to them,” London said.
Junior tight end Zachary Swanson noted that Virginia made many mistakes against BYU and Oregon, and “this VMI game is a great chance for us offensively to improve on those mistakes. Every week we can continue to get better.”
SPECIAL SIGNIFICANCE: Saturday is Military Appreciation Day at Scott Stadium, and that’s no small matter to London, whose father, Wilson, served in the U.S. Air Force for 30 years.
When he was growing up, London said, the family lived in such places as Hawaii, Africa and Germany, in addition to the Tidewater area, and “I always have a tremendous amount of respect for our [armed forces].”
That VMI cadets will be on the field and in the stands will add to the day’s meaning, London said. “It will be great to see the atmosphere. Again, I appreciate all the men and women in uniform out there. It’s a special day. We should never forget about the freedoms that we enjoy because of those sacrifices [made by] men and women in uniform.”
COMFORT ZONE: Swanson, who’s from Katy, Texas, came to UVa as a tight end but played mostly fullback in 2011 and ’12. At 6-6, 255 pounds, Swanson has an atypical build for that position, and the coaching staff shifted him back to tight end before spring practice this year.
A season ago, Swanson caught eight passes for 88 yards and one TD. In two games this year, he already has seven receptions for a team-high 64 yards.
“That’s one of the parts I missed dearly at fullback,” Swanson said, “because I wouldn’t get the ball as much and I’d have to block a lot. Now, it’s almost like a reward: `Yes! I’m still an athlete.’ ”
Classmate Jake McGee, also a tight end, leads the `Hoos with 11 receptions this season. In 2012, McGee caught 28 passes for 374 yards and five TDs, and he draws considerable attention from defenses. Swanson is less of a known commodity.
“I hope they keep not paying attention to me, so I can catch some more passes,” he said. “Jake is Jake. Jake plays his game, and I think I play the game a little bit different than him, and I’m going to keep doing that, and hopefully I continue to have success.”
LARGE AND IN CHARGE: At 6-7, 295 pounds, Urban is a towering presence on the field, and he has already broken up four passes this season. He broke up two in 2012.
“The main thing is just looking at the quarterbacks’ eyes and making sure I show my hands at the last second,” Urban said. “Because good quarterbacks, if I put my hand up there, they’re just going to throw it right over. It’s kind of just a timing thing that I feel like I’ve been getting better at.”
Offensive tackle Morgan Moses isn’t the only player in London’s program who has NFL scouts visiting UVa regularly this year.
“I tell you what, Brent Urban has garnered the attention of every scout,” London said. “We’ve had every NFL team come through to our practice facility, and every scout has come in and said this guy’s playing well.”
Urban, who’s from Ontario, was the 15th pick overall in this year’s CFL draft, but he never considered passing up his final season at Virginia to return to Canada.
“Not at all,” he said. “I wanted to finish playing here. I love UVa, and I definitely wanted to finish out strong.”
His goal is to play in the NFL, but he tries to ignore the scouts’ presence at practices and games.
“I kind of tune it out and just focus on myself and just make sure I’m getting better every day,” Urban said. “Those kind of things will work [themselves] out if I play like that.”
INTO THE MIX? Three true freshmen have played for UVa this season — Mizzell, fullback Connor Wingo-Reeves and cornerback Tim Harris — and some of their classmates also are likely to see action against VMI, London said.
NEW ROLE: Kwontie Moore, who appeared in all 12 games as a true freshman last season, entered spring practice as a candidate to start at middle linebacker. Redshirt junior Henry Coley won the job, however, and has locked it down. The 6-2, 250-pound Moore recently began working at defensive tackle.
“We’re trying to find ways to get guys in the game,” London said, “and Kwontie is a big, strong, powerful guy that went through kind of a transition here to see if he can put his hands on the ground and just go vertical and penetrate up the field. His ability to do that will help us defensively. He knows the defense. He’s a big, strong physical guy. Obviously we’d like to see him get more reps, more opportunities, particularly in this game and going into the games that are conference games.”
Moore is one of three graduates of Norfolk Christian in the program. The others are redshirt freshman cornerback Wilfred Wahee, who suffered a season-ending knee injury during training camp last month, and redshirt freshman tight end Mario Nixon, who’s recovering from a knee injury and has yet to practice this season.
SATURDAY MATINEE: Virginia will play its first road game of the season Sept. 28 against Pittsburgh at Heinz Field, also home of the NFL’s Steelers.
The game, UVa’s conference opener, will start at 12:30 p.m., the ACC announced Monday. In the Mid-Atlantic region, Comcast SportsNet will broadcast the game.