Call it the Big Fix.
Mike London is turning over every rock in hopes of finding a way to get Virginia’s offense kick-started for the rest of the season. He has changed some offensive personnel, made it clear to wide receivers that no job is safe, and has put his offensive coaching staff under the microscope heading into preparation for Ball State.
With Wahoo Nation already calling for new offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild’s head, the pressure is on, the honeymoon is over. Fans want wins, not excuses.
While we commented prior to the season that this is a borderline 6-6 football team, fans are somewhat understanding. All they want is for their team to be competitive, something Virginia really wasn’t at Pittsburgh in a 14-3 loss last Saturday, a game that wasn’t as close as the score indicated.
With an offense ranked No. 111 in the country, Cavalier faithful can’t understand how an offensive staff comprised of three former head coaches can be so unproductive. Three touchdowns all season against FBS competition just isn’t good enough and that’s why they’re after Fairchild.
On the hot seat
Yes, media have been critical for such vanilla play-calling and a lack of productivity, but with the understanding that Fairchild & Co. didn’t report to Virginia until sometime in December. It takes time to put in a new offensive system and even more to teach it.
Along the way, feelings are going to get hurt, toes stepped on, but that’s part of the business.
“I know that the media don’t like Coach Fairchild or his style of play-calling,” UVa quarterback David Watford said during Monday interviews. “But it’s not his fault. We, as an offense, have to execute. We’re not executing right now. We know it, but we just have to go do it. It’s not on him, it’s on us.”
To clarify, I don’t think media has anything against Fairchild. While I haven’t really gotten to know him that well, nor have any sportswriters after nine months, I think he’s a pretty nice guy and have enjoyed our conversations. His play-calling has been questionable at times, but then again, we’re not sure how well the players have learned his concepts at this point.
Personally, I think all of Virginia’s offensive problems for the past two years, perhaps the last four years, can be traced back to the offensive line. I just don’t think they have recruited the types of linemen that used to dominate the line of scrimmage around here, and until they do, they’re going to continue to struggle.
Always on the run
Think about it. Virginia wants to be a power running team. Well, if you can’t establish the run, then you really can’t throw the ball the way you want because the defense doesn’t respect certain things. In that case, Watford is running for his life, throwing on the run, which causes inaccuracies, which causes drops by the receivers, which makes punter Alec Vozenilek a very busy man.
When Virginia can’t run the ball, bad things happen.
“Because then, defenses are able to just key on the pass,” Watford said. “I have to be able to get [the ball] to my checkdown because [the secondary] drops back far enough to take away certain routes and leave checkdowns open, and I have to be able to run and pick up yards with my feet.”
He showed us Saturday that he can pick up big chunks of yardage with his feet when a 91-yard TD scamper was called back because he stepped out of bounds, but danged if he didn’t look like an orange streak headed up the sideline.
Watford believes the offense is close to getting its act together. While the rest of us aren’t as easily convinced, we have seen flashes from time to time. The question is, how much time is it going to take before the Cavaliers give opposing defensive coordinators some sleepless nights?
If you’re frustrated and expecting AD Craig Littlepage to pull a middle-of-the-night, Lane Kiffin firing party, forget about it. London’s job is safe and so is Fairchild’s, at least for the season.
Up or down?
London is looking at all aspects in trying to get things straightened out.
“We’re discussing everything,” London said Monday.
There’s a possibility that Fairchild may go back upstairs into the press box during games, or that associate head coach Tom O’Brien might come down to the sideline. Whatever is going to help.
Asked Monday if he would care to defend Fairchild, who is catching lots of heat from fans, London acknowledged the frustration.
“It’s disappointing about where we are,” the head coach said. “The facts and the statistics don’t lie about that part of it.”
Not only is UVa No. 111 in total offense (322.3 yards per game), but No. 110 in passing offense (158.5), 99th in scoring offense (20.3), and No. 68 in rushing offense, the latter number skewed by numbers pumped up from devouring VMI a couple of weeks ago.
It all starts up front
Still, the question remains if Virginia can rule the line of scrimmage and become effective running the ball and give Watford more room to throw it.
“If it is spreading out just a little bit more to create a running game, if it is putting two tailbacks in the game, whatever it may be, we have to find those things that can help move this team, not so much worry about whether we’re going to run the ball right there,” London said. “We’d like to be physically rugged and tough, but you also have to be smart about what you do, how you utilize the guys you have to help you be successful.”
That’s one reason you see freshman Eric Smith (6-5, 280) starting at right tackle Saturday, backed up by freshman Sadiq Olanrewaju, and former right tackle Jay Whitmire moved to right guard.
Is that enough? Only time will tell, but it’s a start.
The fact that Ball State ranks No. 101 nationally in rush defense won’t exactly hurt either.