ACC All Access: Virginia finds spark behind WRs seeking redemption, but fails in big spots

Finding a creative way to lose doesn’t normally generate much of a buzz in Scott Stadium, where losing has become all too common, but Virginia’s 35-25 loss to Georgia Tech took some effort to achieve.

Other than the final score, and Georgia Tech’s typically astounding rushing yardage, the final stat sheet didn’t necessarily indicate U.Va. (2-6 overall, 0-4 ACC) should’ve lost by double digits and should still be in the throes of a losing streak that has now reached five games.

“Some of the players had career days (against Georgia Tech), but you would rather have the (win),” said U.Va. coach Mike London, whose seat might be getting a little hotter after Saturday’s loss. “There were some good things that happened out there, but not enough good things that allowed us to win. We have a lot of work to do for this football team.”

The one glaring fact that stands out after the loss is U.Va. is capable of finding ways to move the ball in offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild’s scheme, but it’s far from an opportunistic offense. Georgia Tech turned the ball over five times, but U.Va. scored nary a point off those turnovers.

It’s an issue that has plagued U.Va. all season. Though it has collected 15 takeaways, it has scored just 13 points off those takeaways. It has only scored one touchdown off those takeaways, and that score came way back in the season-opening win against Brigham Young.

“You can’t really place the blame on the offense, even with the turnovers,” said U.Va. linebacker Daquan Romero, a Phoebus High graduate. “At the end of the day, we just have to get the win. It’s not just about those five turnovers, it’s about four quarters. There were a lot of times when we let them score. You can’t just put the blame on the offense.”

Georgia Tech’s ground game was as potent as ever. Coming into the day averaging 304 rushing yards per game (fifth in the nation out of 123 Football Bowl Subdivision programs), Georgia Tech punished a U.Va. defense that featured four freshman starters – defensive tackle Donte Wilkins, linebacker Max Valles, cornerback Tim Harris and linebacker Zach Bradshaw, who was playing in a game for the first time – for 394 yards.

Strength in numbers has been Georgia Tech’s standard operating procedure in terms of the running game this season, hitting defenses with a barrage of quarterbacks and running backs, none of whom came into the game averaging more than 58 rushing yards per game. No Georgia Tech player had run for more than 100 yards all season prior to the U.Va. game.

Running backs Zach Laskey (16 carries for 133 yards and two touchdowns), Robert Godhigh (five carries for 111 yards and a 65-yard touchdown) and David Sims (12 carries for 107 yards and two touchdowns) helped Georgia Tech become just the second team in history to have three players rush for over 100 yards in a game against U.Va.

In 1982, Clemson also had three players – Cliff Austin (105 yards), Chuck McSwain (103 yards) and Jeff McCall (103 yards) – gain more than 100 yards rushing in a game against U.Va.

Georgia Tech quarterback Vad Lee indicated he saw holes up the middle of the field in U.Va.’s spread-out defense the Yellow Jackets were able to exploit. U.Va. defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta held the same role at Georgia Tech from 2002-07 under former Yellow Jackets coach Chan Gailey.

“They had wide ends,” Lee said. “The ends were very wide. That’s why I was giving the ball (to backs up the middle), mostly because I figured that they would get at least five (yards) on a play.”

“At first, (the Cavaliers) were kind of moving around a bit. They were trying to do different stuff, but for the most part, we practiced most of the stuff, but their defensive coordinator has seen this stuff a bunch of times before. We just needed to settle down for the most part and play our game, but they were coming pretty aggressive.”

Georgia Tech came into the game second in the nation in time of possession, averaging 35 minutes, 28 seconds per game. U.Va. was fifth with an average of 33 minutes, 53 seconds per game.

U.Va. ended up dominating the category Saturday, holding the ball for 9 1/2 minutes more than Georgia Tech (5-3, 4-2). Quarterback David Watford and wide receivers Darius Jennings and Tim Smith were most effective in utilizing the time U.Va. had the ball.

Watford completed 43 of 61 passes for 376 yards, two touchdowns and an interceptions, setting school records for completions and attempts, and establishing a career-high in passing yards. His huge outing came without the benefit of having his leading pass-catcher on the field – tight end Jake McGee (team-high 31 catches for 265 yards and two touchdowns) missed the game due to a lower extremity injury.

Watford took advantage of what was often soft coverage on Jennings and Smith on out routes, comeback routes and patterns over the middle.

“We definitely saw that on film, and we wanted to capitalize on it…especially to the wide side of the field,” said Watford, a Hampton High graduate. “(Georgia Tech’s defense) bailed out.”

Despite the loss, the game was particularly redemptive for Jennings and Smith, who started for the first time in four games. Jennings, a junior, and Smith, a senior, were replaced in the starting lineup in the previous three games by true freshman Keeon Johnson and redshirt freshman Kyle Dockins – sending a clear message to the upperclassmen that obviously sunk in.


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Jennings had 13 catches for 119 yards and two touchdowns. It was the most receptions in a game for U.Va. player since 2007, when running back Mikell Simpson also had 13 catches against Maryland.

“I was hard on myself,” said Jennings, who pointed out after the game he had just one catch in U.Va.’s three previous games combined. “I think I’m my biggest critic…Just for me to step up, and help us produce (Saturday) was a great feeling, but I just wish I could’ve done more. We also had a loss.

“We just had the attack mindset. We kind of had been struggling in the past few weeks, so we just played desperate. We had nothing to lose, just go out there and give it our all.”


Smith had 10 catches for 151 yards. Coming into the game, Jennings had just 15 catches for 128 yards and a touchdown in the entire season, while Smith had 13 catches for 199 yards and a touchdown.

“I think we got a lot of confidence in the receivers and David,” said Smith regarding what he’ll take out of Saturday’s game. “I told (Watford), ‘You just throw it up, and I’ll make the plays for you.’ That didn’t happen the past seven (games). I’ve just taken it (upon) myself to make sure our group is ready each and every day.”

U.Va. employed a no-huddle approach at times, something Watford felt comfortable in whenever he and Fairchild decided to go that route. Based on Watford’s reaction, it sounds as if he’d like to speed things up more often in the future.

“We saw something that we liked as far as the no-huddle and lining up fast and running certain plays,” Watford said. “We were all for it, ‘Let’s move around, do certain runs.’ We were getting certain looks out of them that we wanted and that we liked, so we were like, ‘Let’s no-huddle it.’ Then, we kind of shied away from it, but then at the end we went back to it, and we were able to move the ball down the field. It was good.”

As strong as U.Va. was passing the ball, it wasn’t nearly as effective running or scoring when it needed to put up points. It finished with a season-low 68 yards on 31 carries (2.2 yards per carry).

Most demoralizing were the missed opportunities off Georgia Tech turnovers. Georgia Tech came into the game having fumbled the ball away just four times all season, but it had three lost fumbles against U.Va. Safety Anthony Harris, who is now tied for the national lead with five interceptions, was responsible for two of Georgia Tech’s turnovers – picking off quarterbacks Justin Thomas and Lee once each.

Two of Georgia Tech’s lost fumbles came in the first quarter. U.Va. reached Georgia Tech territory four times in the first quarter – twice starting drives in Yellow Jackets’ territory off turnovers – and came away with just three points off those four drives.

Of course, the most frustrating of U.Va.’s missed scoring chances came when running back Kevin Parks, who had 13 carries for 54 yards and a touchdown, was stopped for no gain at Georgia Tech’s 1-yard line on a second-and-goal run as time expired in the first half. U.Va. went to halftime trailing 14-10.

London defended the play-calling, saying his struggling team needed to try to score the touchdown and that he thought a jumbo package at the goal line would get the job done. Parks ran behind center Luke Bowanko, but Bowanko was unable to effectively block either of two Georgia Tech defenders that crashed through the line of scrimmage to corral Parks.

“I take that one on myself,” Parks said. “It was a short yardage situation and you have to plug it in. The opportunity was there and I have to get it in no matter what.”

On possessions after Georgia Tech’s five turnovers, U.Va. punted three times, including twice when it failed to cross midfield, turned the ball over on downs once and failed to punch it in the end zone from the 1 at end of the first half.

While U.Va. struggled to come up with big plays when it needed to get them, Georgia Tech excelled in those situations. After U.Va. trimmed Georgia Tech’s lead to 28-25 late in the fourth quarter, Sims scored the final touchdown with 1:55 left on a third-and-2 run he broke for 29 yards.

Earlier in the quarter, Georgia Tech was clinging to a 21-17 advantage after Watford hit Jennings on a 5-yard touchdown pass. Georgia Tech faced third-and-9 from its own 22. Lee responded to pressure from U.Va. by finding receiver DeAndre Smelter for a 13-yard gain. On the next play, Godhigh ran 65 yards for a touchdown with 12:46 left to put Georgia Tech up 28-17.

“It was a great defensive call,” said Lee of his third down completion. “They had people in the right places, but I just tried to fit it in there because I knew it was really all-or-nothing. The game was going back and forth, momentum was kind of shifting. I knew that was a big first down. DeAndre ran a great route and I was just able to get it over the backer, and the corner even played DeAndre great. It was just a great catch.”

With four games left, U.Va. has to run the table just to get bowl-eligible. That’s not a promising outlook considering U.Va. still has to play No. 9 Clemson (7-1, 5-1), at North Carolina (2-5, 1-3), at No. 7 Miami (7-0, 3-0) and No. 16 Virginia Tech (6-2, 3-1).


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