By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Like everyone else who watched the game, UVa quarterback David Watford marveled at Florida State’s performance Oct. 19 in Death Valley. In a battle of Coastal Division powers, the Seminoles humbled previously unbeaten Clemson 51-14 that night.
“They just dominated, from the first play to the last play,” Watford said Monday at John Paul Jones Arena.
The Cavaliers aren’t FSU, but they have an opportunity to hand the Tigers another loss Saturday at Scott Stadium. At 3:30 p.m., these ACC teams will meet for the first time since 2009.
UVa (2-6 overall, 0-4 ACC) faces a formidable challenge from Clemson, which hasn’t played at Scott Stadium in five years. The ninth-ranked Tigers (7-1, 5-1) have an explosive offense led by junior wide receiver Sammy Watkins, senior tailback Roderick McDowell and senior quarterback Tajh Boyd, who played with UVa linebacker Daquan Romero at Phoebus High in Hampton.
Boyd, a two-time All-ACC selection, has passed for 2,243 yards and 17 touchdowns this season. He also has six rushing touchdowns and 10 runs of at least 17 yards.
“He can fit the ball in tight windows, he has the ability to get himself out of trouble in the pocket when he’s getting pressured, and he’s very dangerous once he gets out of the pocket,” said Virginia safety Anthony Harris, who is tied for the national lead with five interceptions.
Clemson is averaging 37.4 points per game. The Tigers may not be quite as fast as No. 2 Oregon, which won 59-10 at Scott Stadium on Sept. 7, but “they’re comparable in terms of the athletic skill and what their offense allows them to do with those players,” Virginia head coach Mike London said.
“They’re definitely comparable to Oregon,” UVa defensive tackle David Dean said.
Dean, a sophomore from Virginia Beach, is among the standouts on a defense that for the second straight week will be without three of its top players –tackle Brent Urban and cornerbacks Demetrious Nicholson and Maurice Canady — all of whom are recovering from injuries.
The short-handed Wahoos allowed 507 yards last weekend in a 35-25 loss to Georgia Tech at Scott Stadium. The defeat was UVa’s fifth straight since a Sept. 21 rout of VMI, and Dean acknowledged that staying positive isn’t always easy.
“It’s tough mentally, but I’ve always tried to have a tough mind and just work through everything, and I just always look for the positive and look for things to get better,” Dean said.
The `Hoos are healthier on offense than on defense. Junior tight end Jake McGee, who missed the Georgia Tech game with an injury, is expected to play against Clemson. McGee leads Virginia with 31 receptions and gives Watford another reliable target.
Clemson’s defense isn’t as heralded as its offense, but Vic Beasley has emerged as an All-America candidate. A 6-2, 235-pound defensive end, Beasley leads the ACC with 10 sacks. The Tigers figure to line him up often opposite Virginia’s right offensive tackle, Eric Smith, a true freshman.
The Cavaliers’ best offensive lineman, senior Morgan Moses, plays left tackle. Moses, who played as a true freshman himself, knows his young teammate may struggle at times against elite pass-rushers, but he has faith in Smith.
“He does a lot of things that you can’t teach as an offensive lineman,” Moses said. “He just has it. His future is very bright.”
So is Watford’s. The sophomore from Hampton High, Phoebus’ biggest rival in the Peninsula District, is coming off a game in which he passed for a career-best 376 yards and two touchdowns.
“There’s some things that he’s capable of every week, and I just look for him to take another step from last week,” said Moses, who lives with Watford. “I told him, `Hey, you threw for 376 last week. Why not 377?’ I put that pressure on him to be better as a player and as a leader.”
Until he began studying film of Virginia, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said, he hadn’t seen much of Watford. Swinney has been impressed.
“Man, he is a very talented young player that I think has a very bright future, and you can tell that they’re trying to bring him along,” Swinney said. “This time next year he’s going to be a lot better than he is now, and a lot of the people around him are going to be better. I think he’s one of those guys that everybody in this conference is going to take note of over the next couple years.”
Watford is not the only one who’s improving, Moses said. “Something is definitely going on in the culture of our team, that we’re getting better every week, and it’s just a matter of time [before UVa breaks through].”
The Cavaliers’ focus, Watford said, is on “finishing the season strong. Every week, just having the same mindset that we’re going to play a complete game, play a whole game, and just go out there and make it fun again.”
On the ACC coaches’ teleconference Wednesday, London was asked about his team’s losing streak. In each game a handful of plays derailed the Cavaliers.
“It’s discouraging,” London said, “but at the same time you always have to continue to talk to the players about [how] it’s an opportunity to change, to turn, to make those plays … that can lead to victories, lead to positive things happening in games.
“You’re dealing with the psyche of young men that are 19, 20, 21 years old. We’re ruled by the psychology of results. Right now we’re not winning games, but guys are practicing hard, there’s effort being given. We’ll continue to keep working, continue to keep expecting and demanding their best, and see a breakthrough.”
Junior tight end Zachary Swanson believes confidence is the key. Swanson cited senior wide receiver Tim Smith’s play in practice leading up to the Georgia Tech game. Against the Yellow Jackets, Smith caught 10 passes for 151 yards, both career highs.
Swanson said he and McGee “were cheering for Tim every time he caught a pass in practice, and it just started rolling. He had a great week of practice, making great catches, and then of course there it goes, it rolls over into the game and he has a great game.
“I think that’s the bottom line: It comes down to confidence. We have talent, we have the scheme, and it comes down to playing and doing your best.
“I say all the time, you can only control what you can control. I don’t have control over what the defense does. I don’t have control over returning a punt or whatever. But I can control what I can do as a tight end, blocking and running routes. And I think that’s the key: If each person takes care of their responsibilities, does their job to the best of their abilities and has confidence when they go out there … That’s the way that you start moving forward. And I think that’s the big thing that we’ve been lacking.”
The seven Football Bowl Subdivision opponents UVa has played — BYU, Oregon, Pitt, Ball State, Maryland, Duke and Georgia Tech — have a combined record of 42-14. The schedule gets no easier Saturday, but the Cavaliers say they welcome the challenge.
“We have another chance to go out this weekend and play a great team and play the game that we’re blessed enough to come to college and play,” Swanson said.