The good, the bad and the Virginia football
Cavaliers' 14-3 loss to Pittsburgh Saturday features few bright spots
Though a 14-3 conference loss to Pittsburgh is nothing to write home about, a few points — not all bad, surprisingly — stood out in Virginia’s first ACC meeting with Pitt.
Let’s kick off this article on a positive note. Much like Virginia football, I like to build up my audience before tearing it down.
Simply put, the defense continued to ball out Saturday. Without the offense gifting Pitt the ball twice in its own red zone, the defense could have feasibly pitched a shutout. Clearly the team’s strongpoint, the Cavaliers defense will need to continue to thrive throughout conference play — because if the first few games have been any indication of what is still to come, the offense can’t be counted on.
I’m not sure if freshman defensive end Max Valles was nervous heading into his first collegiate start. What I do know is that the true freshman didn’t show any fear, registering five tackles and two-and-a-half sacks and spending a majority of his day wreaking general havoc on the Panther backfield. If there was ever a guy to fit well with defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta’s aggressive, blitz-happy scheme, Valles is probably it.
The rest of the Cavalier defense performed admirably as well. Though the unit gave up a few long plays here and there, it managed to hold the ACC’s leading passer coming into the game to 13-of-31 passing for 191 yards. Junior cornerback Demetrious Nicholson and junior safety Anthony Harris each pulled in highlight-reel interceptions, and made some fans wonder why they weren’t playing receiver as well. Harris also forced a fumble that was recovered by senior defensive end Jake Snyder, which kept Virginia’s hopes on life support in the third quarter.
One absurd stat says all you need about how the Virginia rush defense performed: 8. Pittsburgh ran for just 8 yards on 35 carries for an average of 0.2 yards per attempt. The Cavaliers had 13 tackles for losses — including seven sacks — amounting to 78 lost yards for a Panther offense that had entered the contest averaging 40 points per game.
Junior punter Alec Vozenilek deserves a special mention as well as his services were in high demand Saturday afternoon. Vozenilek booted nine punts for 419 yards, including a career-best 77-yard punt, the fourth longest in Virginia history. It was reminiscent of his banner day against No. 2 Oregon, when his performance earned him the unofficial, crowd-appointed MVP honors in the 49-0 loss.
It’s that all-too-familiar time of year again for Cavalier fans: a chorus of doubters are already calling upon the administration to ax coach Mike London and offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild, among other demands.
The Fire Steve Fairchild twitter account @UVAOCStinks came into existence during the second half, sending its first tweet at 3:38 p.m. While I do think the play calling needs to improve, I’m not sure firing Fairchild four games into the season is the most rational choice. I’d like to see a little more imagination on offense rather than the run-run-short pass-punt combination that’s been a staple of Virginia’s offense this year. Still, as long as Fairchild doesn’t start rotating quarterbacks, he’s okay in my book.
At quarterback, coaches and players have indicated for weeks that we would see a new David Watford, one that would begin to run more and show the dynamic playmaking ability that they spent the entire offseason hyping. Watford finally responded with his feet, taking a designed run on the team’s first drive for eight yards and then almost breaking loose for a touchdown on a scramble in the second quarter — before unintentionally stepping out of bounds. Watford finally justified why his teammates frequently call him one of the fastest guys on the team.
I almost put the offense in “The Ugly” section of this article, because oh man, was it ugly. But it did not do quite enough to earn the honor. Watford was 15-of-37 for 123 yards, although it’s hard to pin his abysmal completion percentage on the quarterback alone. Saturday’s game must have been a statistician’s nightmare, trying to decide which passes counted as drops and which ones as incompletions. Many of Watford’s passes were late or off-target, but the number of times receivers and tight ends got their hands on the ball and didn’t come down with it was exasperating.
Then there was the rushing attack. A team that often refers to its power-running style as its offensive identity finished with just 65 yards on the ground. The number of Pitt helmets flying around each Virginia ball carrier indicates that this offense may be a bit too predictable. The Panthers frequently stacked the box against the run, and the fact that the offensive line was manhandled didn’t help matters.
The real culprit in the Cavaliers’ loss wasn’t the anemic offensive production that almost put me to sleep in the middle of the game — a bold assertion, I know. No, I firmly believe that Virginia could’ve won the game in spite of its lackluster offense if it wasn’t for the repeated mental errors that will likely cause the entire coaching staff to go bald by season’s end from tearing its collective hair out — those that aren’t bald already, anyway.
Everybody has bad games, but boy did junior receiver Dominique Terrell have a really bad game. I’m not sure if he forgot his head at the team hotel or simply lost it when he collided with teammate freshman cornerback Tim Harris on the first punt return of the game — in which he came dangerously close to touching the punt.
Then there was the game-altering, inexplicable mental error. The Panther’s second punt bounced off his leg as he followed it aimlessly down the field. It was surrounded by multiple Panthers, who covered the live ball and set up their offense inside the redzone and for the team’s first touchdown.
But Terrell was not the only culprit of mental lapses — Virginia fumbled the ball five times Saturday. The offense also handed Pitt the ball inside the red zone on a fumbled shotgun exchange between Watford and sophomore center Ross Burbank. Burbank’s second poor snap resulted in another drive-stalling fumble and he was later replaced by redshirt freshman Jackson Matteo. It remains to be seen how this game will impact their “open competition” heading into a matchup against Ball State Saturday in Charlottesville.