Nov. 3, 2013

By Jeff White (

CHARLOTTESVILLE — Let’s start with the good things that happened Saturday for the slumping University of Virginia football team.

* True freshman wideout Keeon Johnson had five catches for 77 yards — both career highs.

* Junior tailback Kevin Parks rushed for a game-high 82 yards and pushed his career total to 2,139 yards, which puts him 14th on UVa’s all-time list.

* Junior safety Anthony Harris, who came in tied for the national lead with five interceptions, collected his sixth pick late in the first quarter.

* Sophomore defensive tackle David Dean had two tackles for loss, including a sack, and tied his career high with seven stops.

That about covers the high points. This was not a game UVa, which lost for the sixth straight Saturday, will want to remember. Eight weeks after No. 2 Oregon humbled them 59-10 at Scott Stadium, the Cavaliers fell to ninth-ranked Clemson by the same score on the same field.

“We didn’t play well enough, we didn’t coach well enough,” UVa head man Mike London said. “We’ve played a lot of good teams, and that’s one of the better ones we’ve played.”

The Tigers (8-1 overall, 6-1 ACC) totaled 610 yards against a defense that for the second week in a row was missing three of its top players: tackle Brent Urban and cornerbacks Demetrious Nicholson and Maurice Canady.

“I don’t know how they’d stack up against Oregon,” London said, “but the thing that they have is an accomplished veteran quarterback, and they have vertical threats in their passing game with Sammy [Watkins] and a couple other guys. They threaten you with [running] plays that make you be conscious of protecting the perimeter. So they do a lot of things that affect how you play and the way you play, and you can’t miss a tackle. You can’t be a step too late, too slow, because they exploit that. They’re a very fast, athletic team.”

Clemson senior Tajh Boyd, a graduate of Phoebus High in Hampton, celebrated his return to his home state by completing 24 of 29 passes for 377 yards and three touchdowns before giving way to backup Cole Stoudt early in the third quarter.

On the Tigers’ final first-half drive, Boyd had completions of 11, 7, 10, 19 and 12 yards — all along the left sideline — before hitting wideout Adam Humphries for a 25-yard gain on a crossing route. Boyd then ran 1 yard for the TD with 13 seconds remaining.

“He’s a good quarterback,” Anthony Harris said. “He’s experienced, knows how to read coverages, knows where to go with the ball in pressure situations.

“We showed our hand [on blitzes] a few times, which you can’t do with a veteran quarterback, and he took advantage.”

Boyd, who became the ACC’s career leading in touchdown responsibility Saturday — he now has 93 passing and 23 rushing — combined with junior wideout Sammy Watkins on TD plays of 33 and 96 yards.

Watkins, who finished with 169 yards on eight catches, beat true freshman cornerback Tim Harris on each of his touchdowns.

“You have to know your personnel,” Boyd said. “They had a young guy matched up with him, and when you have a guy like [Watkins] with space, he’s going to have an opportunity to make plays. Sammy did an unbelievable job.”

Boyd has been a mentor to his UVa counterpart, sophomore David Watford, a graduate of Hampton High. Watford was coming off a career game — he threw for 376 yards and two TDs against Georgia Tech — but he struggled Saturday.

Watford, who rushed for Virginia’s lone TD, completed only 16 of 35 passes for 130 yards, and he threw a game-changing interception in the second quarter.

After its short-handed defense held Clemson without a first down for the fourth consecutive possession, Virginia (2-7, 0-5) began a drive at its 47-yard line. Eight minutes remained in the half, the score was 14-7, and the home fans in the crowd of 46,959 were in full voice.

Their cheers soon turned to stunned silence. After the Wahoos lost a yard on back-to-back running plays, Watford badly overthrew junior wideout Darius Jennings, who was open in the middle of the field. Freshman safety Jayron Kearse intercepted the pass and returned it 37 yards to the UVa 33.

That began a stretch in which the Tigers ended three straight possessions with TDs, and what had been a seven-point game was suddenly 35-7 at the break.

“You almost have to play a perfect game in order to [defeat] an excellent team like Clemson,” London said. “I was proud of the guys that first quarter, and then towards the latter part of the second quarter things unraveled for us, and [the Tigers] took advantage of a lot of things.”

A second UVa turnover, this one on a fumble by junior tailback Khalek Shepherd, set up Clemson’s second TD during that second-quarter flurry. The Cavaliers, meanwhile, continued to struggle to turn takeaways into points.

Anthony Harris’ interception was the 16th turnover Virginia has forced this season. The `Hoos have only 13 points to show for those takeaways.

A week after gaining 444 yards in a 35-25 loss to Georgia Tech, the `Hoos finished with 277 against Clemson.

“A lot of that falls on my shoulders, just not being able to execute as well,” Watford said. “Clemson’s defense had a great plan, especially after seeing what we were able to do well last week. They came out and they disguised a lot of coverages and caught me, not really off guard, but they caught me making errant passes and just forcing certain throws that I shouldn’t have, just based on coverages. They did a good job with that.”

Clemson also shut down the two wideouts who against Georgia Tech combined for 270 receiving yards and 23 catches. Senior Tim Smith had no receptions Saturday. Jennings had three, for 13 yards.

The Tigers “did a great job covering those guys up,” London said. “They played a lot of press and bump in disrupting some of the timing of Tim and Darius particularly. Whether they’re playing press or bump, you gotta be able to get off that and give the quarterback a window to throw the ball, and obviously we weren’t good enough today to make that happen.”

Twelve true freshmen have played for the Cavaliers this season. The injuries to Nicholson and Canady have forced Tim Harris into a more prominent role than the coaching staff would prefer, and Clemson picked on him Saturday.

“Obviously he’s dejected, because you’re out there on display and everyone sees it,” said London, who noted that Watkins is a challenge for any cornerback. “The only thing you can do is keep coaching and teaching a young man that better days will come for him. He’ll get better, he’ll get stronger, he’ll understand a lot of the concepts that we’re asking him to do.

“He’s gotta keep his head up. You gotta have a short memory. You don’t forget, but you gotta get ready to play again, because the next game is the most important game for us, and he’s got to get ready to play on Saturday.”

Another UVa rookie, the 6-3, 200-pound Johnson, had more success Saturday. He again showed why the coaching staff is so high on him.

“Keeon has continued to get better, not only as a blocker, but now as a receiver,” London said. “He’s got big hands. He’s a big man. He’s got good vertical stretch. He can go horizontal. And so you saw a couple [passes on which], whether you characterize them as high or not, he was able to go up and get his hands around the ball.”

Johnson said he’s growing more comfortable with every game.

“I just try to tell myself it’s just like practice,” he said. “So if I’m calm in practice I should be calm in the game and just have fun.”

UP NEXT: Three regular-season games remain for Virginia. The first comes Saturday at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, where UVa meets North Carolina (3-5, 2-3) at 12:30 p.m.

UNC ended a four-game losing streak Oct. 26 with a 34-10 rout of Boston College and then defeated NC State 27-19 this weekend.

Carolina has won three straight over Virginia and leads the series 59-54-4.

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