Virginia's previously anemic offense has produced nearly 1,000 yards the last two weeks, and quarterback David Watford is fresh off his best game as a collegian. The chore is to translate that progress into victories.
Saturday's 27-26 setback at Maryland was the Cavaliers' third straight, and any hopes of attaining the break-even record required for bowl eligibility rest on Saturday's home date with Duke.
Since 2008, the Blue Devils are 4-1 against Virginia, 5-32 versus the rest of the ACC. Few if any numbers better encapsulate the Cavaliers' current malaise — four losing seasons in the last five years.
No offense to Duke and David Cutcliffe, the conference's reigning coach of the year after guiding the Devils to a bowl last season. But the program's marked progress notwithstanding — Duke was 1-31 against the ACC in the four years before Cutcliffe arrived — Virginia should not be losing that often to Duke.
The Devils (4-2, 0-2 ACC) again rank among the conference's most generous defenses. The question is, can the Cavaliers (2-4, 0-2) exploit them like Pittsburgh did in a 58-55 win at Duke last month?
Virginia gained a season-high 505 yards at Maryland and 459 the previous week against Ball State, only the third time in Mike London's four seasons as coach that the Cavaliers have had back-to-back games of 450-plus.
Guard Conner Davis' return — he missed three games with a lower extremity injury — and Luke Bowanko's move from guard to center solidified the offensive line against Maryland, but the prevailing theme at London's weekly news conference Monday was Watford's improvement.
A sophomore from Hampton making his sixth college start, Watford passed for a career-high 263 yards Saturday without an interception. After throwing six picks in the season's first three games, he has thrown one in the last three.
"I believe in David," London said. "I believe in what we're asking him to. He's getting better at it. This was his best college football game to date, and I believe he's got better games ahead of him."
London was especially pleased with Watford on Virginia's final possession, when he completed 6-of-8 for 50 yards, driving Virginia into position for Alec Vozenilek's 42-yard field-goal attempt — he missed wide to the right.
"There were different things that happened (on the drive) and you shake your head like, 'He's getting better,'" London said "The couple throws he made to (Zach) Swanson and (Jake) McGee. The one downfield to Darius Jennings was over the outstretched hands of the defender.
"Even the (4-yard, second-quarter) touchdown (pass to McGee) where he scrambled and went to our left and was going to run the ball in the end zone, and he stopped because he had a presence and awareness that Jake was coming across. … Those type of awareness things speak to the maturation of a quarterback."
So the Virginia faithful anxious for backup quarterback Greyson Lambert need to settle down. Watford is the guy, and should be.
"The big thing is, the offense is improving," London said, conceding considerable red-zone issues that forced the Cavaliers to settle for four short field goals against Maryland.
London passed on identifying a common thread among Virginia's recent losses to Duke, but it's obvious: poor defense. The Blue Devils averaged 39 points in those four victories.
Duke's most impressive performance to date was Saturday's 35-7 rout of Navy as quarterback Anthony Boone, returning from the broken collarbone that had benched him for three games, passed for 295 yards and three scores. Against Ball State and Maryland, Virginia allowed a combined 678 passing yards and three touchdown passes — without an interception.
But the Cavaliers' overall effort Saturday wasn't nearly as discouraging as the previous week's. Virginia was penalized five times and committed no turnovers versus Maryland, compared to 13 and two in the 48-27 defeat to Ball State.
Virginia's most-discussed sequence Saturday was the play-calling that preceded Vozenilek's miss in the final seconds. The Cavaliers had a second down at the Terps' 25 with a minute remaining, but two conservative runs netted no yards.
Yes, Vozenilek had kicked four field goals, but all were inside 30 yards. This was 42, with the game in the balance, a chore for any kicker, let alone a backup — starter Ian Frye has a hip injury. So yes, I'd have tried to get Vozenilek closer.
The outcome was similar to the Sugar Bowl two seasons ago, when Virginia Tech's Justin Myer, subbing for the suspended Cody Journell, went 4-for-4, with a long of 43, before missing a 37-yarder in overtime. The Hokies lost to Michigan 23-20.
Breakdowns on offense, defense and special teams have plagued Virginia at various times, hence the urgency surrounding Saturday.
"You'd like to put your finger on one thing," London said. "It's probably more than one thing, but the one thing that will always remain constant has got to be that effort and not giving up on these players."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun