By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The University of Pittsburgh’s football team, held to 13 points in its season-opening loss to Florida State, has scored 49 (against New Mexico) and 58 (against Duke) since then.
“We know that they’re a high-powered team, that they can put up points, that they have a high-powered offense,” Virginia linebacker Daquan Romero said Monday at Scott Stadium.
And that will put pressure on UVa’s offense this weekend in Pittsburgh. At 12:30 p.m. Saturday, at Heinz Field, the Panthers (2-1 overall, 1-1 ACC) host the Cavaliers (2-1), who have yet to play a conference game. The Wahoos are coming off a game in which they scored 49 points and piled up 580 yards, but the opponent was VMI, which competes in the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision.
Against Football Bowl Subdivision opponents — BYU and No. 2 Oregon — Virginia struggled to move the ball consistently. To beat Pitt, UVa figures to need significant production from its offense.
“Every game will be a test for us,” head coach Mike London said Monday, “in terms of: Are we continuing to improve, are we stagnant, are we going backwards?”
UVa quarterback David Watford, who’s in his first season as a starter, said the offense has made “tremendous strides” since the start of training camp. The redshirt sophomore from Hampton wasn’t as positive about his own play.
“I haven’t performed up to par,” Watford said Monday. “No quarterback wants to have more turnovers than touchdowns, obviously.”
Watford has completed 65 of 98 passes (66.3 percent) for 481 yards. But he’s thrown twice as many interceptions (six) as touchdown passes (three).
Against VMI, Watford was picked off twice in the first quarter. Each time he threw to a well-covered target. Once he settled down, though, he sparkled. Watford finished 18-of-25 passing for a career-high 206 yards and two TDs in the Cavaliers’ 49-0 romp over the Keydets.
“It was more of a mental thing for me,” Watford said. “I was kind of out there just flying around too fast. As a quarterback you have to be able to just stay calm and stay poised and just react to what you see. You don’t want to be out there thinking too much, and that’s kind of what I was doing. I was out there thinking about everything, instead of just reacting to what I see. I just have to slow it down in my mind.”
Junior tight end Jake McGee, who leads Virginia with 14 receptions, was asked Monday about Watford’s self-assessment.
“I don’t know if he’s too hard on himself,” McGee said. “I think it’s a good thing for someone to want to strive to be great. If he wants to become a big-time quarterback and take it to the next level, he’s going to need to ask those things of himself, and I really think he’s done a great job so far, and I really do think he’ll continue to take his game to the next level.”
EYE TO EYE: The BYU game was Steve Fairchild’s first as UVa’s offensive coordinator, and he worked from the press box. Since then, he’s been on the Cavaliers’ sideline during games.
“He had asked me, and I told him straight up that I would rather him on the sideline than in the box,” Watford said Monday, “because I’m able to communicate better with him. Instead of having to go through a headset, I can just talk to him directly. I can get more information from him, faster, and we’re able to see the same thing, even though [when Fairchild is] in the press box, he would be able to see the defenses and stuff better, what they’re running. But I feel like just us being able to see each other eye to eye and being able to talk on the sideline constantly, is easier for not only myself, but him as well.”
WORK IN PROGRESS: Watford, one of the fastest players on the team, at times has looked reluctant to run this season. He’s carried 26 times for 48 yards and one TD.
Like many teams, UVa has the read option in its playbook, and Watford had little experience with that when he got to college.
At Hampton High School, he said, it “wasn’t the same kind of read. I was keeping it either way. It was a designed run, so I would just fake it and keep it, and I’d have a pulling guard [to follow]. So it was a much easier read. But now, I’ve had to learn how to read the defensive end, just his body language, his eyes, and stuff like that. I feel a lot more comfortable with it now than I did at first. We’ve continually repped it in practice.”
Watford, who scored on a 1-yard run again VMI, has been told by teammates, including Romero, who starred at Hampton’s Phoebus High, to follow his instincts on the field.
“I just have to trust my speed,” Watford said. “[Romero] was just like, `Just trust your speed, like we were in high school.’ Because in high school I would trust my speed, I would split defenders and make people miss and just run. But now I’m trying to find holes and lanes instead of just running. My coach is telling me the same thing: `Just run. You’re fast for a reason, so just run.’ ”
“Dave’s fast, so when he can get going, it’s good to see him run,” said McGee, who played quarterback at Collegiate School in Richmond. “But it’s one of those things where if it happens, it happens. Best case would be he goes a full game making all the right throws and doesn’t get touched. The less hits on Dave, probably the better for everyone.”
TOP OF THE CHART: True freshman Max Valles, who made his college debut against VMI, is listed as the starting strong-side linebacker on the depth chart UVa released Monday.
Valles, who stands 6-5, is listed at 210 pounds, but he’s closer to 230, said Evan Marcus, Virginia’s strength and conditioning coach for football.
After a postgraduate year at Fork Union Military Academy, Valles arrived at UVa this summer and was tried at tight end and then defensive end before finding a home at Sam linebacker, where he has supplanted sophomore Demeitre Brim atop the depth chart.
“Max is a great pass-rusher,” Romero said. “That’s what he brings to the defense, that skill. And he’s also one of those guys that brings max energy. His energy level is ridiculous.”
Even if Valles doesn’t know exactly what he’s doing, Romero said, he’s “going to run to the football and give all he has.”
NEXT MAN UP: Junior tight end Zachary Swanson, who has caught eight passes for 75 yards this season, suffered a knee injury against VMI, and his status for the Pitt game is unclear.
If Swanson’s role is limited, or he can’t play, look for Rob Burns to get more work. A 6-7, 250-pound redshirt sophomore from Northern Virginia, Burns is a converted defensive end who impressed during training camp last month.
“Rob’s doing great,” McGee said. “He’s come a long way since he moved over. He’s got a big frame, and he’s really ready to learn everything and really do whatever’s asked of him. He’s a great guy to have in the meeting room and just be around.”
Burns, who played tight end early in his career at Stone Bridge High School, has yet to catch a pass as a Cavalier.
BIG OPPORTUNITY: Virginia has lost three straight ACC openers since winning 16-3 at North Carolina on Oct. 3, 2009. A win Saturday would end that streak. It would also give the Cavaliers their best record after four games since 2007, when they finished 9-4.
For a team coming off a 4-8 season, much is at stake Saturday.
“It’s our first ACC game, so it’s a big, big stage for us,” Romero said. “It’s a stage for us to show our capabilities, and it’s a big stage for us to just show everybody what we’ve got.”
UVa’s defense is in its first season under coordinator Jon Tenuta, and his group dominated in the wins over BYU and VMI. Still, said Romero, Virginia’s second-leading tackler, the defense must do more.
“We have to be able to put points up on defense,” he said. “We have to be able to create more turnovers, more sacks, more tackles for loss. There’s still a lot of things we want to get accomplished that we haven’t yet. We’re trying to help the offense out as much as we can.”
Junior cornerback Demetrious Nicholson agreed. “We’ve had a couple of turnovers in this season so far, but we definitely need turnovers turned into points to help our team win games and help our offense as well.”
MAN OF MANY TALENTS: In his college debut, true freshman Daniel Hamm rushed for 136 yards and two touchdowns against VMI. A walk-on from Southwest Virginia who’s also on the track team at UVa, Hamm would not have played as much had two other tailbacks, Khalek Shepherd and Taquan Mizzell, been available.
When Shepherd and Mizzell return, Virginia will have a glut of tailbacks, and the challenge for the coaching staff, London said Sunday night, “will be to make sure we put them in positions to help us carry the ball, whether it’s in a punt situation, a kickoff situation, whatever it may be.
“Daniel did a nice job. Being a track guy, you may see him back there returning kickoffs. There may be some other roles as well. You’re always looking for dynamic players with speed, and the more that you have that can contribute to your team’s success, then the better off you’ll be.
“It’s a good issue to have with talented players, dynamic players, and now we just have to utilize them to the best of their ability and then make sure we help ourselves.”