By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — In football, UVa has lost 14 of its past 20 games, in part because of its inability to consistently convert in short-yardage situations.
The most recent case came Saturday afternoon at Scott Stadium. After getting a first down at the Georgia Tech 2-yard line in the final seconds of the first half, Virginia failed to get into the end zone on back-to-back running plays. The Cavaliers, who fell 35-25 to the Yellow Jackets, had similar problems Oct. 12 in a 27-26 loss at Maryland.
“That’s really tough, because that’s the difference in winning and losing games,” sophomore quarterback David Watford told reporters Monday afternoon at John Paul Jones Arena.
UVa (2-6 overall, 0-4 ACC) hosts No. 9 Clemson (7-1, 5-1) at 3:30 p.m. Saturday at Scott Stadium. The Cavaliers, mired in a five-game losing streak, know they can’t afford to have their short-yardage woes continue.
“It’s frustrating,” junior tight end Zachary Swanson said a few minutes later. “I don’t know what other way to put it. Those are the must-have situations. You gotta convert on fourth down and you gotta punch it in right before half. That’s what you gotta do to win football games. It’s not always going to be these long throws that score or whatever.
“Situations come up, and that’s a situation that has been consistently plaguing us. I remember the UNC game last year was sort of the same situation, and here it is this year.
“Maybe it’s different play-calling or it’s assignments within the play, but I think that needs to be the next thing that we start focusing on. Because I feel like we’ve moved forward in a lot of aspects of the offense’s game.”
Indeed, UVa’s passing game was exceptionally productive against Georgia Tech. Watford threw for a career-high 376 yards and two touchdowns, and wide receivers Tim Smith and Darius Jennings became the first Cavaliers ever to have at least 10 receptions each in the same game.
Smith caught 10 passes for 151 yards, both career highs. Jennings had a career-best 13 receptions for 199 yards and two TDs. Both players lost their starting jobs after Virginia’s Sept. 28 loss at Pittsburgh, but they won them back in practice last week.
From last Tuesday on, Watford said, “I knew Tim and Darius were going to have big games. I saw it before it even happened, because in practice you could just tell their intensity, how focused they were, how sharp they were with their routes, how they caught the ball, passes that were too low, too high, behind them, they were just making great plays every practice and every period.”
Jennings said: “The coaches challenged [the wide receivers]. We just had another opportunity to step up and make plays, and when the ball was thrown our way, we just went and got it.”
For the season, Smith has 23 catches for a team-best 350 yards and one TD. Jennings leads Virginia’s wideouts with 28 receptions (for 247 yards) and three touchdowns.
“I haven’t been as productive as I would have liked, and the team would have liked, throughout the season,” Jennings said Saturday. “I kind of had some bumps in the road. Just to finally get back on track, I’ve been working my butt off in practice, just putting forth my best effort, and you could see the connection between Dave and the rest of the receivers today.”
NO ROOM TO RUN: Jennings entered the Georgia Tech game ranked fourth among ACC players in kickoff returns. He’s now fifth, with an average off 22.4 yards per return, after a game in which the Jackets’ coverage unit overwhelmed Virginia’s blockers.
Jennings ran back three kickoffs for only 44 yards, with a long of 18 yards. True freshman Taquan Mizzell had one return for nine yards.
“It was a little frustrating at times,” Jennings said, “just because you can see it all happening in front of you, and there’s nothing you can really do.”
The Jackets tried to kick the ball near the front corner of the end zone, and “credit to them, they did a great job doing it,” Jennings said Saturday. “We weren’t really able to break one today. But that’s something we have to work on, too. [Special teams is] a third of the game. We improved on offense, but we need to improve on that as well.”
Georgia Tech fared much better on its three kickoff returns, totaling 108 yards.
That was not, UVa head coach Mike London said Monday, “the best special teams performance that we’ve given. Obviously when you [allow] a kickoff return that goes almost 60-something yards and you provide a short field for an option team that will grind up the ball, that’s not good enough. When you have a returner in Darius Jennings that was doing a pretty nice job in the return game, not having an opportunity to extend the field because of a block or two that was missed, that’s not good enough.”
CASE CLOSED: UVa’s penultimate play of the first half Saturday ended with about 11 seconds remaining. Five seconds then ticked off before the officiating crew stopped the clock for the Wahoos’ final timeout of the half.
On his weekly Sunday night teleconference, London told reporters that he had “called time out with about 11 seconds left on the clock to my sideline official. How and why the clock was allowed to go down to six seconds, I’m still waiting for an explanation, and that’s all I’m able to tell you right now.”
UVa reported the matter to Doug Rhoads, the ACC’s coordinator of football officiating, but London offered no details Monday about their conversation.
“When I called time out with 11 seconds left on the clock, the communication in that getting done and getting to the correct people, there was a delay in that for whatever reason,” London said. “Let’s just say that Doug and I have talked, and I’ll just leave it at that.”
TIES THAT BIND: In the expanded ACC, some longtime football rivalries will inevitably fade. This will be the first game between UVa and Clemson since 2009, and they won’t meet again until 2020.
Still, London said, there are “a lot of guys on our team that know a lot of players on their team because of the regional recruiting flavor.”
Clemson’s quarterback, senior Tajh Boyd, starred at Phoebus High in Hampton, as did UVa’s second-leading tackler, junior linebacker Daquan Romero. Watford, a Hampton High graduate, also knows Boyd well.
Growing up, Watford said Monday, he occasionally worked out with Boyd, “just trying to learn from that guy. I saw what he was doing and how good he was and the potential that he had, and he kind of took me under his wing when I was in high school, so we’re pretty close from that.”
Boyd, who twice has been named to the All-ACC first team, has thrown for 2,243 yards and 17 touchdowns this season, with five interceptions. Watford has passed for 1,715 yards and seven TDs, with nine picks.
Watford’s production has steadily increased in his first season as a starter. In each of his past three games, he’s passed for at least 263 yards. Against Georgia Tech, he set UVa records for attempts (43) and completions (61).
“I didn’t realize how many times I threw till after the game,” Watford said.
London said: “David made some great throws. He made some very accurate throws during the course of the game, and you just keep hoping that that maturation process with him continues on.”
Watford’s teammates expect that to happen.
“Dave’s a great kid,” Swanson said. “He works his butt off, and it shows.”
BALL HAWK: Junior safety Anthony Harris intercepted two passes Saturday. His second pick came on a fourth-and-5 pass from the Cavaliers’ 31, and he’d like to have that play back.
When he saw the ball in the air, Harris said Monday, his instincts took over and he “went up and made the interception. And then once I came down and guys started celebrating, I realized I could have batted it down and given the team better field position.”
With five interceptions — the first of which set up the winning touchdown in UVa’s season-opening victory over BYU — Harris is tied for the national lead.
If he could trade those picks for more victories, Harris said, he would do so. “But I don’t really think about myself. I just go out there and just try to do whatever I can to help my team win, whether that’s interceptions, tackles, motivating guys or just anything I can do on the field. My main focus is just my team right now, not really my individual accomplishments.”
SIGNS OF PROGRESS: On the Coastal Division’s last-place team, Harris isn’t the only player who has distinguished himself this season.
Junior tailback Kevin Parks has rushed for nine touchdowns and is second on the team in receptions with 29. Junior tight end Jake McGee has 31 catches (in seven games). Watford, Jennings and Smith are coming off career games, and sophomore defensive end Eli Harold has 5.5 sacks. Senior defensive tackle Brent Urban, with 7.5 tackles for loss in six games, established himself as an All-ACC candidate before a high ankle sprain sidelined him Oct. 12.
Still, Watford said, at “the end of the day, it’s a game of wins and losses, and you want to have more wins than you have losses.
“Of course I know any of my guys would trade the stats and all the accolades for a boatload of wins, and I would do the same thing. It just shows we just have to keep working, because we can do both. We can have crazy numbers, crazy stats and still win a lot of games. So that’s what we’re really focused on, and each week we’re getting closer and closer, so we just have to keep pushing.”