CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Virginia’s players hadn’t reached the locker room Saturday evening before coach Mike London set the tone for the rest of the season.
After a 30-24 loss to Southern Mississippi that may prove fatal to the team’s goal of reaching the postseason, London called for an upbeat week of practice, yelling that “We don’t quit. It’s not what we do.”
They didn’t against the Golden Eagles, as true freshman quarterback David Watford nearly engineered a dramatic comeback off the bench. The hole had been dug too deep, though, and the Wahoos’ defense couldn’t buy Watford an extra minute at the end with a key stop.
At halftime, defensive coordinator Jim Reid had urged his players to stay back and be patient against a screen pass Southern Miss was running.
With a personal foul creating a third-and-24 for the Golden Eagles with 3 minutes remaining, they trotted out that play, and receiver Tracy Lampley trotted through the defense for 41 yards as he blew by three potential tacklers.
“I knew the play,” linebacker LaRoy Reynolds said. “I was in position, I should have made the play, and I didn’t make it.”
He wasn’t the only one saying that about a potential turning point.
Given the ball with 1:24 left, Watford drove to the USM 49. On fourth down, he found Kris Burd over the middle, a pass that Burd dropped.
Watford had received plenty of fanfare but achieved limited results so far this year. Saturday served as his coming-out party, with him leading a 76-yard drive in the fourth quarter to keep things close.
“I just felt like I was pulsing,” the Hampton native said. “Everything was going right, and even if I made a bad play, everything was still going right.”
He had entered in relief of sophomore Michael Rocco, who threw two interceptions before halftime, taking a tough blow to the ribcage on the second.
Coming out of the locker room, the coaching staff was unsure of his health, then he badly underthrew Burd on a third interception.
“He came back out and thought he could go, and obviously on the last pick there he showed that he couldn’t,” London said.
Rocco didn’t return to the game after that, though afterward he maintained that he was fine and would be ready to go today if the Cavaliers practiced. “A little banged up, but that happens after every game,” he said.
He once again struggled to get help from his receivers, who have dropped passes all season. The team’s running backs have not only carried the load on the ground, but have been the most effective in the air as well.
Another second-half blow was suffered when running back Kevin Parks left with an injury after being smashed at the bottom of a pile. He played a small number of snaps in the fourth.
Meanwhile, the Golden Eagles (3-1) effectively spread the field and took advantage of mismatches in the five-receiver, or “empty,” set, where a linebacker has to drift into pass coverage.
“We just had to change the coverage a little bit when they do that,” linebacker Steve Greer said. “As the game went on, we got better executing it.”
By that time, the comeback proved to be just out of reach.
Now 2-2, Virginia’s bowl hopes have taken a blow. The Cavs will have to win three ACC games to reach the postseason, assuming they defeat Idaho next week, a game U.Va. will enter as a heavy favorite.
London said that the common ground between last week’s loss to North Carolina and Saturday’s was that both were competitive games his team couldn’t finish off.
“In order to change the perception of this program and this team in games like that, we’ve got to come out and win,” he said. “You’ve got to do better. You’ve got to make plays.”
And while the future may have been on display as Watford led his scoring drive, the present is much gloomier as the Wahoos face an uphill battle to their goals.
• Read Michael Phillips’ Virginia blog at timesdispatch.com