By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Against a Ball State football team that’s averaging 40 points and 472 yards per game, breakdowns by UVa’s defense could well prove costly at Scott Stadium.
There’s reason to believe, however, that defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta’s charges will meet the challenge Saturday afternoon. Virginia’s offense, in its first season under coordinator Steve Fairchild, has inspired less confidence.
The Cavaliers rank 112th nationally in total offense (322.3 yards per game) and 100th in scoring offense (20.3 points per game).
“Obviously we had much higher expectations than what we’ve performed so far,” senior offensive guard Luke Bowanko said. “I don’t think anyone would disagree with that.
“The defense is playing great … We’ve got to step it up and play to their level, and we’ll win some football games.”
Fairchild said: “We need to improve in every area in a hurry, myself included.”
In its final non-conference game, UVa (2-2) hosts Ball State (4-1) at noon Saturday. The Wahoos are coming off a 14-3 loss to ACC foe Pittsburgh, a game in which Tenuta’s defense recorded seven sacks and allowed only 199 yards. Pitt’s two touchdowns were set up by Virginia turnovers.
That the Cavaliers’ defense, which is in its first season under Tenuta, is capable of dominating is reassuring, Bowanko said, “but the pressure is really on [the offense] to keep up our end of the bargain and have their back … We need to keep the pressure off them and put points on the board and make their job easier.”
UVa’s coaches have made major personnel changes on offense since the Pitt game. Two true freshmen are likely to start Saturday: right tackle Eric Smith and wide receiver Keeon Johnson, who has yet to play this season. Redshirt sophomore Jay Whitmire, who started the first four games at right tackle, is now the first-team right guard. Wideouts who have had low profiles in the offense, including redshirt freshman Kyle Dockins, may be in the rotation against Ball State.
Two injured regulars on offense — guard Conner Davis and tight end Zachary Swanson — aren’t expected to play Saturday, but tailbacks Khalek Shepherd and Taquan Mizzell, who have been slowed by ankle sprains, are closer to full strength and will be available.
“We’ve got good kids,” Fairchild said. “There’s a good work ethic. They’re trying hard. I like what we do at practice in terms of effort. We just gotta execute better and continue to work on things.
“We’re not going to throw more at them and try to reinvent the wheel. We’re just trying to do the things we do and do them better than we’ve been doing them.”
The loss to Pitt was especially frustrating, Fairchild said, because it was a “conference game on the road that was winnable, and you hate to let those get away. But obviously we didn’t do our part offensively, and it was a number of things. It was all over the place. We just weren’t executing.”
Sophomore quarterback David Watford completed only 15 of 37 passes against the Panthers, for 123 yards. Nearly a dozen of those incompletions were the result of drops, but Watford’s passes weren’t always on target.
“I have to take more accountability for that, just be more accurate,” Watford said. “I can’t blame it all on [the receivers]. It’s my fault as well.”
Fairchild raved about Watford’s work ethic and leadership qualities and said he believes Watford is making steady progress in his first season as Virginia’s starter.
“I think David will continue to get better,” Fairchild said. “I think David has a chance to be a good player for us. But we’ve got to surround him with some help too. And as that improves and that gets more consistent, I think David’s play will be more consistent.”
Balance is a goal of the offense, “and until we get a little bit better at throwing the football, in terms of protection and executing the pass game, it makes it a little more difficult to run it,” Fairchild said. “They go together, and we don’t have either phase where we want it. We’ve got to improve in both areas. I think as one improves it’ll help the other part of our game.”
The offensive players are “good kids, and they practice hard and they want to do well,” Fairchild said. “I feel for them. And I’ve got to do a better job. I’ve got to get them in better spots to succeed. There’s no better kids to coach than what we’ve got here. They’re fabulous.”
Bowanko said the offense is not disheartened by its play this season.
“Obviously, [at Pitt] it was very frustrating,” he said. “But when we get in the film room and watch it on Sundays, there’s a lot of little things that if we clean up, we’re not far away from having a big game on offense. We’re confident that we can get those things fixed.”
Ball State, which won nine games in 2012, has had no such problems with its offense this season. The Cardinals, who compete in the Mid-American Conference, have scored on their first possession in every game.
“It’s a very productive offense,” UVa head coach Mike London said. “They do a lot of things.”
Ball State senior Keith Wenning is one of only two quarterbacks in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision to have passed for at least 300 yards five times this season. Wenning’s favorite target is junior wideout Willie Snead, whose father played at UVa before finishing his college career at Florida.
Snead (35 catches for 611 yards and four touchdowns) is one of three Ball State players with at least 24 receptions this season. By contrast, no UVa player has more than 16 catches.
“They do what they do very well,” Virginia middle linebacker Henry Coley said of the Cardinals. “It’s definitely a system, and they have some veteran guys running the system.”
Coley likes the Cavaliers’ chances Saturday if they can defend the way they did in Pittsburgh. Still, he noted, as impressive as that performance was, it “all comes down to wins and losses at the end of the season, and we ended up losing our first ACC game, and that puts us in the lower half of the ACC right now.
“It hurts no matter what, whether it was on us or it was on the offense. It’s a team effort at the end of the day.”
Coley answered unequivocally when asked about the importance of the Ball State game for UVa.
“We have to win the game,” he said. “There’s no question about it. We have to win the game. It’s that important.”
No matter the outcome Saturday, the `Hoos will play more seven more regular-season games, all against ACC opponents. The Ball State game is significant, Bowanko agreed, but not because a loss would derail the Cavaliers’ season.
“I think this game’s important,” Bowanko said, “because we need to form an identity on offense … that we can take into the rest of the season and ACC play.
“The onus is on us to really establish a running game, for David to get the ball downfield and make plays in the passing game. In that sense, yes, it’s very important.”