Through three weeks of the college football season, Virginia has conquered a formidable opponent, has fallen hard to one of the nation’s best and has had a Saturday off.
With a dramatic win over BYU, a crushing loss to Oregon and a bye, the Cavaliers have had plenty to tinker with going into Saturday’s 3:30 p.m. home clash with VMI.
First change — get the quarterback to run more.
That was Mike London’s not-so-subtle announcement Monday when the UVa head coach met with reporters at John Paul Jones Arena.
“I think when you play against two really good football teams you're going to have to find that type of identity sooner rather than later,” London said. “One of the things that we had to address is also using David [Watford] as an option to run the ball as well so teams have to defend the field, not only vertically and horizontally but know where he is at all times.
“There were some things that we could do to allow him to do that. He's talented enough to be able to do that.”
Watford has technically carried 18 times for 18 yards this season, but hardly any of it has been by design.
Facing a pair of top 40 defenses, the 6-foot-2, 200-pound redshirt sophomore has taken his lumps as a first-time starter. Virginia, averaging just 14.5 points and 260.5 yards a game, ranks at the bottom or near the bottom in the ACC in nearly all offensive categories. There’s hope Watford, who ran for 795 yards as a senior at Hampton High School, can provide a spark with his feet.
“There are some things that, by nature of the call, that it's a read-option to run, but you have to call it enough to where the opportunity will present itself,” London said. “In some passing situations, obviously, you don't want guys to stay in the pocket, but there are also some opportunities ... it's third-and-5 or third-and-6 and they're dropping back and you see a way [to run], he wants to do what's right and what's called for. But at the same time, he can use his athleticism and make those decisions himself.
“So we're going to empower him to do those types of things and let him use some of his athletic ability.”
VMI (1-2) is allowing over 206 rushing yards per game, good for second-to-last in the Big South.
“It throws the defense into fits,” Wahoo tight end Zach Swanson said of a running quarterback. “You got to not only honor the run with a running back and then the play-action pass off that or the deep routes or whatever ... but then now, all of a sudden, you have this really fast quarterback that if everything breaks down, he can go and he can make for himself. I think that’s bottom line. It just adds another thing that the defense has to compensate.”
Although Virginia didn’t play Saturday, the Cavs didn’t exactly take the rest of the open schedule off.
“All I know from these practices over the bye week was they were tough,” Swanson said. “They were camp-style. I was soaked at the end of practice. They were tough practices. It was not running around in helmets. It was tough.”
After getting shredded by Oregon for 557 yards in a 59-10 rout on Sept. 7, the Virginia defense quietly smiled when it took in the No. 2 Ducks’ 59-14 thrashing of Tennessee on Saturday.
Oregon piled up 687 yards on the Volunteers.
“It was slightly satisfying seeing them kind of put a similar performance forward and know that they’re going to do that consistently,” said UVa defensive tackle Brent Urban.
Following that Oregon loss, London told reporters on a Sept. 8 teleconference that all three running backs — Kevin Parks, Taquan Mizzell, Khalek Shepherd — suffered ankle sprains in the game.
Monday, London said the trio is a go for VMI.
“Going into this game we should be at 100 percent,” London said. “The timing of this open date and the guys particular to the running back position had those issues, but they're out of their boots. They were involved in yesterday's practice, and they're off today.
“I'm sure they're getting treatment, and they should be ready to go by Tuesday.”