CLEMSON – We’re hitting the road for Virginia; I’m excited to head back for the first time since July, when I went back to chat with important figures from Tajh Boyd’s youth for our big season preview.
This is also the last regular season game Clemson will play outside the state of South Carolina. The Tigers are heavy favorites, just as they were last week at Maryland.
We’ve got double coverage on our usual five questions dished out to opposing beat writers: Andrew Ramspacher covers Virginia for the Daily Progress in Charlottesville, and Mark Giannotto covers the Cavaliers for the Washington Post. They each weigh in here, and you can follow them respectively on Twitter at @ARamspacher and @MGiannotto.
Aaron Brenner, The Post and Courier: Obviously it was an encouraging start against BYU; what’s happened since then? Did Oregon steal all the Cavaliers’ mojo in game two?
Andrew Ramspacher, Daily Progress: The BYU game was basically a wash — literally. It was a weird game that included a two-hour rain delay and ended with the Cougars, up four late, throwing on third down. UVa’s Anthony Harris picked off the pass. A play later, Kevin Parks rumbled in from 14 yards for the winning score. Obviously, with the direction both teams have headed since, that result qualifies as a fluke.
Oregon was Oregon and that was expected. I don’t think the Ducks stole anything (beside, maybe, some dignity from administrators who put Oregon on the schedule in the offseason, replacing a more winnable game at Penn State). Plus, Virginia had a bye week after Oregon and then went out and beat VMI, 49-0.
This current five-game slide has been a variety pack of losses. In a 14-3 defeat at Pitt, UVa had less than 200 yards of offense. In a 48-27 loss to Ball State, UVa had an embarrassment of turnovers (four) and penalties (13 for 93 yards). In a 27-26 loss at Maryland, UVa converted only two of six red zone chances into touchdowns. In a 35-22 loss to Duke, UVa couldn’t hang on to a 22-0 second quarter lead (Twenty-two!). In last week’s 35-25 loss to Georgia Tech, UVa turned five takeaways into zero points.
Mark Giannotto, Washington Post: It’s looking more and more like that rain-filled win over BYU in Virginia’s season opener was a fluke on par with its victory over Penn State early last year. Oregon simply did what it does to everyone, but there’s no getting around the tailspin the Cavaliers have gone into since then and their flaws have been out in the open.
On offense, the Cavaliers lack explosive playmakers on the outside like Clemson and they have the fewest passing plays of 20 or more yards in the conference this year. They’ve also been turnover-prone and unable to convert critical short-yardage situations. The defense, which started out as a pleasant surprise under new defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta, has been ravaged by injuries. They’re still amongst the national leaders in terms of third down efficiency , but a lot of the teeth to the unit has been missing with defensive tackle Brent Urban and cornerbacks Demetrious Nicholson and Maurice Canady on the shelf in recent weeks.
More than anything, though, Virginia has exhibited the telltale sign of a bad team: It seems to be finding a different way to lose each week. One week it’s turnovers, the next it’s penalties and recently it’s been failed red-zone opportunities.
Brenner: David Watford’s getting thrown through the ringer as a sophomore. He’s done some good things, but has been prone to picks. Where do you see his career headed in this system?
Ramspacher: I wouldn’t say he’s night-and-day from the BYU opener, but he’s certainly made strides. Last week, Georgia Tech loaded the box to take away Parks and the running game, forcing Watford to beat them. He almost did. Benefitting from a revival of the receivers (Tim Smith and Darius Jennings went from the doghouse to combining for 23 catches), Watford set school records for attempts (61) and completions (43). His yards – 376 – are fourth-most in Virginia history. But then again, his yards per attempt was barely over six.
In Steve Fairchild’s system, I think both parties are still trying to figure each other out. Watford has a ton of athletic ability, but, for whatever reason, he struggles at the zone read and still hesitates to scramble. Approaching game nine, it’s still obvious this is his first season as a starter.
Giannotto: The jury is still out on whether Watford is the long-term answer at quarterback for this program, but he has shown improvement with each game. The system used by new offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild isn’t philosophically different from what Virginia ran previously, and Watford has set or tied a new career high in passing yards the past three games, including a 43-of-61, 376-yard performance last week against Georgia Tech. His decision-making – both as a runner and passer — remains a work in progress after sitting out last season as a redshirt and he’s second in the ACC with nine interceptions. Folks here in Charlottesville haven’t exactly been thrilled with Fairchild’s sometimes-vanilla play calling, but it seems the Cavaliers have made a concerted effort to better play to Watford’s strengths – i.e. his mobility – in recent weeks.
Brenner: Does Virginia have the running game to control the clock against Clemson’s front seven, which has been very good in five games and pretty iffy against Georgia, NC State and Syracuse?
Ramspacher: If Virginia has the option to plod along with the run, the Cavs will do it. I just don’t think Clemson will let them. A reason for Duke’s comeback two weeks ago was a second half crowding of the box. It made Virginia one-dimensional with only the pass. Georgia Tech did the same and UVa gained 68 rushing yards on 31 carries. I expect the same kind of numbers on Saturday. Yes, Parks is a tough runner who’s put up some big numbers this season, but he’ll need help from UVa’s fairly average offensive line to open holes. That’s a huge challenge.
Giannotto: With junior Kevin Parks, five-star recruit Taquan “Smoke” Mizzell and sophomore Khalek Shepherd, the Cavaliers might have more talent at tailback than any other position on the roster, but their overall run game has only been dominant at times this year because of its offensive line. Virginia has battled injuries and ineffectiveness up front, but seems to have settled on a starting group over the past few weeks. There’s no question, however, that the Cavaliers can pound it with the best of them when they’re clicking. Parks is third in the ACC with 614 rushing yards this year and Virginia ranks behind only Georgia Tech in terms of time of possession in the ACC. Last week against the Yellow Jackets, the Cavaliers had the ball for almost 40 minutes. The problem has been turning those yards into points, and chances are that will continue to be an issue against Clemson.
Brenner: Defensively, the Cavs block a lot of passes. Just a product of their length in certain spots, or what’s gone into that?
Ramspacher: It’s a product of Brent Urban. Virginia’s 6-foot-7 defensive tackle is a monster at the line of scrimmage. His big paws can basically take away throwing lanes for quarterbacks. Nationally, he leads all defensive linemen in pass deflections … and he hasn’t played since Oct. 12. And he won’t play against Clemson with a “lower extremity” injury.
Without Urban, Virginia’s defensive line has been more vulnerable. The lanes are more clear now – no lineman stands over 6-4 — and quarterbacks have taken advantage. I’m sure Tajh Boyd will do the same.
Giannotto: The blocked passes were more so at the beginning of the season, thanks to Tenuta’s aggressive style of play and the presence of Urban. With how much blitzing Tenuta does, it often leaves Virginia’s secondary in one-on-one situations. The back four thrived in those pass break up situations early on, but seem to have lost more than they’ve won over the past month and it’s reflected in the increased passing yards they’ve given up lately. Urban, meanwhile, was leading the entire ACC in pass break ups as a defensive tackle before he suffered a high ankle sprain against Maryland three weeks ago. The 6-foot-7 redshirt senior was Virginia’s best defensive player and the program’s top 2014 NFL draft prospect, on his way to earning all-ACC honors. He won’t play again Saturday and his absence has left a giant hole in the trenches.
Brenner: What constitutes a successful Saturday for Virginia at home against No. 9 Clemson, which has been very sturdy the past two years against unranked opponents?
Ramspacher: Coaches and players won’t admit it, but I think we’ve reached the moral victory stage of UVa’s season. With their next loss, the Cavaliers are out of bowl contention. Everything out of Charlottesville is Mike London will return for 2014. That means it’s development time. Virginia is one of the youngest teams in the nation (see eight seniors), so how does this youth hold up against one of the best teams in the nation? It’s going to be tough. UVa is missing three starters on defense (Urban plus CBs Demetrious Nicholson and Maurice Canady) and the offense features a true freshman at right tackle who will probably draw the Vic Beasley assignment.
Giannotto: At this point, with Virginia riding a five-game losing streak and facing questions about London’s job security, just keeping the final score respectable would be a win for Virginia. The Cavaliers didn’t actually play as bad as the final score suggested against Oregon back in September, but given the way the rest of the season has transpired, another blowout would just add fuel for an already restless fan base. Basically, if Virginia can avoid getting booed by its home crowd and look competitive – a la Maryland last week – I doubt anybody around here would complain.