Virginia hits road to battle Panthers
Season's first road game pits Cavs against Savage, formidable offense
It’s a weekend of firsts for the Virginia football team.
For the first time since last Nov. 24, the Cavaliers (2-1, 0-0 ACC) will hit the road Saturday when they travel to Heinz Field to take on Pittsburgh. It is also the first ACC meeting between the two teams, with Virginia looking to notch its first-ever win in six tries when facing a new ACC member for the first time. Yet the Cavaliers have no reservations about their first road trip of the season, even in a stadium that doubles as the home of the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers.
“I just love playing football, really, whether it’s home or away,” junior linebacker Daquan Romero said. “I feel like away games… [are] a more exciting place for me because… When you get the crowd upset and you just get nothing but silence, there’s nothing better than that feeling in another stadium.”
Silencing the crowd this weekend will be a big task for the Virginia defense, which will face a potent offensive threat in the Panthers (2-1, 1-1 ACC). Last weekend against Duke, senior quarterback Tom Savage tied an ACC record by tossing six touchdowns in the Panthers’ 58-55 road win. Savage was named the Walter Camp National Offensive Player of the Week for his performance and currently leads the conference with 287.0 passing yards per game.
Savage benefits from a prolific tandem of receivers in senior Devin Street and freshman Tyler Boyd, who combined for 14 catches for 320 yards and five touchdowns against the Blue Devils. Street currently ranks third in all-time receptions at Pittsburgh, ahead of NFL standout Larry Fitzgerald. For a Virginia secondary that has faced few vertical passing tests so far this season, containing the pair will be a significant undertaking.
“There haven’t been really deep shots taken or anything like that, but I’m sure down the road — especially this week — I’ve got to be prepared to cover,” junior cornerback Demetrious Nicholson said. “[Pitt receivers] can run routes, they can go up and get the ball and they’re different from receivers we’ve played so far this season. We’ll definitely have to be on our toes as a secondary defending them.”
Former Virginia consensus All-American safety and 1998 ACC Defensive Player of the Year Anthony Poindexter, currently the team’s secondary coach, also spared little praise for the Panthers’ offensive weapons.
“It might be the best two receivers we’ll see all year,” Poindexter said. “They’re very talented guys [and] they’ve got a quarterback that can make all the throws. It’ll be a big challenge for us.”
The Virginia defense plans to combat Pitt’s aerial attack by using different packages this week in an attempt to put more pressure on the quarterback. Freshman outside linebacker Max Valles’ promotion over sophomore Demeitre Brim mirrors coach Mike London’s philosophy of varying personnel based on specific packages. Though Valles played only seven snaps against VMI last weekend, his teammates and coaches are high on his potential.
“Max is a great pass rusher,” Romero said. “That’s what he brings to the defense is that skill, that pass rushing. He’s also one of those guys that brings max energy… His energy level is ridiculous. If he doesn’t know what he’s doing or not, he’s going to run to the football and give it all he has.”
Yet the Cavaliers cannot rely on defense alone to come away with a tough road victory. Facing a team that put up 58 points against an ACC opponent and is averaging 40 points per game, Virginia knows it must step up its so-far uninspiring offensive production.
“I’m 100 percent confident in my offense that we can compete with any team, shootout-wise, if we have to,” sophomore quarterback David Watford said. “Going down to the wire, if we have to score 100 points, 99-100, I think we can do it — I know we can.”
Junior tight end Zach Swanson — who suffered a lower-extremity injury against VMI — was still in a knee brace earlier this week according to London, who will release Swanson’s official status Thursday. The junior has started all three games this season and is fourth on the team with eight catches for 75 yards.
Swanson’s absence would hamper Watford in his already demanding mission to claim his first ever road win as a starter. However, Watford doesn’t believe the road will affect his play as long as the offense plays like it practices.
“I don’t really feel like my approach has to change,” Watford said. “We have to get out to a fast start and put points on the board. That’s really what we’re going to focus on this week, just being able to execute.”
Another offensive focus during recent weeks of practice has been a greater emphasis on Watford running with the ball. Although often pegged as one of the fastest players on the team and described as a “blur” while at top speed, spectators have yet to see Watford’s supposedly awe-inspiring athleticism translate to the field. The sophomore attributes this to thinking too much, rather than merely reacting, and is working on improving.
“My coaches just say I have to trust my speed,” Watford said. “In high school I would… I would split defenders and make people miss and just run. But now I’m kind of trying to find holes and lanes instead of just running. So my coaches are telling me the same thing: ‘Just run. You’re fast for a reason, so just run.’”
When asked about the prospect of kicking off ACC play with a win on the road, Watford neither minced words nor downplayed the team’s expectations.
“That would be perfect,” Watford said. “If we’re able to string together win after win after win, we’ll be back in a bowl game in December — and that’s exactly where we want to be. So that would be a great start for us, 1-0 in the ACC, a road win.”
Kickoff is slated for 12:30 p.m.