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Sept. 21, 2013

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — Two weeks after testing itself against the nation’s second-ranked team, UVa returns to the football field Saturday, hosting Virginia Military Institute at Scott Stadium.

The Cavaliers, who opened with a 19-16 win over BYU, learned valuable lessons, however painful, from their 59-10 loss to No. 2 Oregon, and they’re eager to apply them against the Keydets (1-2).

“We took the positives, we took the negatives and rolled with it,” sophomore defensive tackle David Dean said.

The Ducks “were a great team,” junior cornerback DreQuan Hoskey said. “If you make a mistake against them, it’s hard to come back.”

The Wahoos (1-1), who were off last weekend, figure to have more margin for error against VMI, in its sixth season under former UVa offensive coordinator Sparky Woods.

VMI, a member of the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision, is coming off a loss to Division II North Greenville and has dropped nine straight in its series with Virginia. It would be easy for the `Hoos to overlook this game, but Mike London and his players say that won’t happen.

“We’ll give our opponent this week the attention they deserve,” London said.

Dean said: “We definitely gotta respect VMI just as we did Oregon.”

This is London’s fourth season as Virginia’s head coach. His offensive coordinator in 2010, ’11 and ’12 was Bill Lazor, now with the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles. Under Lazor’s successor, Steve Fairchild, the offense has struggled to produce big plays — partly, no doubt, because of the caliber of defenses the Cavaliers have faced.

“Right now it’s just a building process,” said junior tight end Jake McGee, who leads UVa with 11 receptions. “I think we have a lot of good stuff we’ve been working on this week and through the bye week, and you definitely want to be able to stretch the field as an offense … It’s been a big emphasis these past two weeks, and I hope Saturday will be the start of really seeing it on the field with production.”

Like Lazor, Fairchild favors a pro-style offense, but that doesn’t mean the systems are identical. That may explain why Virginia sputtered offensively against BYU and Oregon.

“Things are always different,” McGee said. “While the base of [the offense] can be similar, there’s still [Fairchild’s] flavor and him getting to see which players he likes more, what each one does and who brings stuff to the table that he likes, because each offensive coordinator and each coach is different with what they like and what they want out of their players.”

Of the 10 opponents left on UVa’s regular-season schedule, VMI is the weakest, so Fairchild’s approach Saturday may differ from his strategy in subsequent games. Still, quarterback David Watford is likely to run more than he did in the first two games, when the redshirt sophomore from Hampton often looked reluctant to leave the pocket.

Having to worry about a quarterback as fast as Watford throws “the defense into fits,” Virginia tight end Zachary Swanson said. “It just adds another thing that the defense has to [prepare for].”

In his first season as a starter, Watford has completed 47 of 73 passes for 275 yards and one touchdown, with four interceptions. He’s run 18 times for 18 yards.

Watford blamed himself for the offense’s poor showing against Oregon. In reality, London said, Watford was in no way solely responsible for the offense’s breakdowns, but “that’s the kind of leader he is. He’ll never talk about someone that didn’t run the right route or not having enough time to throw the ball.”

Watford’s teammates, London said, see “this is what a true leader is all about, so they’ve got to step their game up as well.”

Virginia has played three true freshmen this season: tailback Taquan Mizzell, fullback Connor Wingo-Reeves and cornerback Tim Harris. That total may well have doubled by game’s end Saturday. Other newcomers likely to play against VMI include defensive tackle Donte Wilkins, outside linebacker Max Valles and tailback Daniel Hamm, a walk-on from Fort Chiswell High in Southwest Virginia who continues to impress the coaching staff.

The 6-2, 305-pound Wilkins has been on the two-deep since the end of training camp, and “the plan is to play him this season,” defensive line coach Vincent Brown said Tuesday. “He’ll get his opportunities, whether it be this week or next week. What I just keep reiterating to him is to be ready when your time comes.”

With VMI in town, it’s fitting that Saturday is Military Appreciation Day at Scott Stadium. For McGee, the annual celebration has special meaning. His brother Bo graduated in June from the U.S. Military Academy and will be a member of the 82nd Airborne Division’s 3rd Brigade Combat Team at Fort Bragg, N.C. Bo’s friends have become big fans of his kid brother, and that adds to Jake’s motivation this weekend.

“It’s a game that I enjoy each year,” said McGee, a graduate of Collegiate School in Richmond. “It’s cool to see it, and it gets something going in you, maybe like an extra little gas in the tank that gets you fired up.”

If football “can help relieve some stress or worry in [military members’ lives],” McGee said, he’s honored to do his part.

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