After offense flounders, Watford accepts responsiblity
Maligned, struggling quarterback targets 'turning point' vs. Ball St.
A lot went wrong for Virginia against Pittsburgh. Save an impressive defensive performance, the team looked like a shell of the one that had blasted past Virginia Military Institute 49-0 in the previous week. The offense combined for a measly 188 total yards — including just 65 on the ground — and a series of frustrating drops and missed connections by the receiving corps and sophomore quarterback David Watford prevented any comeback efforts.
Going into the week’s practices, Virginia head coach Mike London went to work on his offense, scrambling the offensive line and promoting young receivers to try and jumpstart productivity. Watford, however, refused to pin the Cavaliers’ offensive woes on anyone other than himself.
“After the [Pittsburgh] game, I didn’t even shower,” Watford said. “I just got on the bus right after the game, just out of frustration. I went and talked to my mom and saw my family and just got on the bus. … I feel like we could have done more offensively and I have to take accountability for the offense, because me being a leader of that offense, everything runs through me.”
The receivers were much maligned after Saturday’s poor performance, but Watford was steadfast in defending his teammates. He insists that their success — or lack thereof — is the direct result of his play.
“I never really got too frustrated with my guys, because … if they’re dropping it, I need to change something up too,” Watford said. “I have to put it in a better place where they can catch it easier, and just make it easier. Some of the drops were hard catches, they were difficult catches for the guys, and I have to take more accountability for that, just be accurate. … I can’t blame it all on them. It’s my fault as well.”
As soon as the team touched down in Charlottesville Saturday night, Watford took it upon himself to call his receivers to the practice field for a late-night practice session. After throwing late into the night, they were back out Sunday morning trying to iron out their issues.
“After a game, we try to do as much as possible, but after the past couple weeks, we have to switch it up,” Watford said. “We have to sacrifice more, we have to throw more. We just have to be on the same page as the receivers.”
Many fans have lambasted offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild, who came into his first year at Virginia with the goal of establishing a powerful running attack behind junior tailbacks Kevin Parks and Khalek Shepherd and freshman tailback Taquan Mizzell. Parks and freshman tailback Daniel Hamm both had more than 100 yards against VMI, but no Virginia rusher has yet broken that mark against an FBS opponent.
New systems take time to implement, but Virginia’s shoddy performance against top opposition has irked London.
“We want to see production,” London said. “We want to see improvement because you see it defensively. You see a new scheme that’s being played, that’s being executed well right now. So there is a level of disappointment with the new offensive scheme that’s not as productive, is not showing the type of production that it needs to help us.”
Watford, in his typical self-effacing manner, spoke well of his offensive coordinator. He recognizes that Virginia has disappointed so far, but he believes the Cavaliers have underlying talent yet to manifest itself on Saturdays.
“I know that the media, they don’t really like coach Fairchild or like his style of play, but it’s not his fault,” Watford said. “We as an offense just need to go out on the field and execute and just show that we can do the type of stuff that we have. We have so much, we just haven’t been able to do it, because we’re not able to execute right now. It’s nothing to try to hide, because we know, everyone else knows it.”
Virginia attempted some read option plays against Pittsburgh and has been trying to incorporate the scheme more in an effort to use Watford’s mobility. The quarterback hopes he can continue to use his innate skills to create more offensive chances.
“Each week, I feel more comfortable running [the option],” Watford said. “When I watched the film I went back and I was like, ‘Ah, I could have pulled that one.’ … The more I rep it, the more comfortable I’ll be with it. I just need to trust my speed.”
London echoed the need for a varied offensive attack, but he said the specific plays would depend on the opponent.
“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,” 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.”
Saturday’s matchup against Ball State could be an opportunity for Virginia to get its offense back on track. The Cardinals have given up an average of 426.2 offensive yards per game, which ranks 86th nationally.
“This is a very important game for us,” Watford said. “We can’t take this team lightly. They’re a great defense and a great team overall. We have to focus on what we do and correcting what we do, correcting the mistakes that we made in the game, and just focusing on getting our offense to that level where we can execute as well as our defense does.”
Despite his self-criticism, Watford still has a positive outlook for the Cavaliers’ season.
“[Ball State] could be the turning point in our season,” Watford said. “We get this win, and we string wins along and we end up in a bowl game. That’s what we want to do.”