After a 19-16 win against BYU and a 59-10 loss against No. 2 Oregon, it is understandable that Virginia spent its bye week trying to figure out what in the world is going on with its offense.
The Cavaliers’ despair is understandable, if not entirely fair to themselves. Though Virginia generated just 29 points in two games, those performances came against a pair of defenses considered to be among the nation’s best in overall talent.
“These are two of the toughest defenses in the nation, and we played them back-to-back,” Virginia quarterback David Watford said following the Oregon game. “I’m just learning every week, and that’s all I can do. I need to continue to grow and continue to learn and keep pushing.”
That is precisely what the Cavaliers have been doing with two weeks of practice heading into an ACC tune-up against lightly regarded FCS opponent VMI. Virginia coach Mike London thought the first two opponents would have established his offense’s identity, but the opposite proved true.
“I think when you play against two really good football teams that you’re going to have to find that type of identity sooner rather than later,” London said. “One of the things that we had to address is using [Watford] as an option to run the ball as well so teams have to defend the field, not only vertically and horizontally but know where he is at all times.”
Watford has just 18 yards in 18 carries, but first-year offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild has said Watford has the ability to tuck and run. Conservative play-calling to date has limited those opportunities.
To that end, London said the Cavaliers have worked on calling more read-option plays.
“You have to call it enough to where the opportunity will present itself,” London said. “In some passing situations, obviously, you don’t want guys to stay in the pocket, but there are also some opportunities that say, listen, if it’s open, [run].”
Specifically, London mentioned third down situations when the Cavaliers need five or six yards for a first down. In those instances, he wants Watford to watch the defense closely and be prepared to improvise.
“If it’s third [down] … and they’re dropping back and you see a way, [Watford] wants to do what’s right and what’s called for,” London said. “But at the same time, he can use his athleticism and make those decisions himself. So we’re going to empower him to do those types of things and let him use some of his athletic ability.”
Those opportunities should present themselves in abundance against a lower-division opponent coming off a 37-24 home defeat against Division II North Greenville.
In fact, the upcoming games against VMI, Pittsburgh and Ball State not only are winnable, but should allow Virginia to finally forge its offensive identity.
“I believe so. … The next couple games, we talked about identity and things like that,” London said. “I think that will start to forge itself how we play, the way we play and look at more statistically about where we are.
“You look at the statistics now, points against, things like that, I think it’s a little bit of anomaly because of who that we played. But I think as you start to get into more games, playing football games, and things start metering out the way that you thought.”