When Virginia made wholesale staff changes following the 2012 football season, the apparent intention was to put a better-coached team on the field in 2013.
That hasn’t been the case to date. Aside from a 2-3 record, two statistics jump out:
The Cavaliers are 120th out of 123 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in turnover margin and tied for 92nd in fewest penalties (tied for 31st in most penalties).
Tom O’Brien, formerly the head coach at North Carolina State and Boston College, joined the Cavaliers staff this year as an assistant coach and mentor to his one-time B.C. assistant, Mike London.
“Losing becomes a habit,” said O’Brien, a respected UVa assistant during the heyday of Cavalier football, when George Welsh was the head coach from 1982-2000. “We’ve got to forget all the noise around us and learn how to win a football game.”
By the noise, O’Brien was referring to the criticism Cavaliers and head coach London have been receiving.
“As you look at it, we’ve been our own worst enemies,” said O’Brien, who serves as associate head coach for offense and has specific responsibility for the tight ends. “We’ve turned the ball over 14 times in five games and that has to stop.
“Sometimes, things are going to happen but you shouldn’t fumble seven times. I’m a believer in the John McKay philosophy that the ball isn’t heavy; you should never drop it. That, we have to correct. There’s no excuse for fumbling the football.”
In addition, sophomore quarterback David Watford has been intercepted seven times and ranks 14th out of 14 ACC quarterbacks in passing efficiency.
“You’re going to throw some interceptions,” said O’Brien during a break in preparations for Saturday’s game at Maryland. “You can’t make your quarterbacks afraid to throw the ball. Now, if it becomes a problem, we have to find a solution to it.
“Especially, when you’ve got a kid like we do [in David Watford] who’s essentially a rookie quarterback as a starter, some of those things happen. We have to get he and the receivers on the same page at times.
“Coach [Steve] Fairchild has been working with him to make better decisions.”
O’Brien was basically brought in as a troubleshooter and quickly noticed a disparity on the offensive line, where UVa has two seniors, two juniors, two sophomores and nine freshman
A true freshman, Eric Smith, started at right offensive tackle last week against Ball State. O’Brien has gone on record as saying that redshirting was a big reason for a UVa turnaround around Welsh in the mid-1980s, but the Cavaliers already have used 11 true freshmen this year.
“We only had six upper-classmen [on the offensive line] and one of them got hurt in the open week,” said O’Brien in a reference to junior guard Conner Davis.. “So, now you’re down to five and you’re going to have to play freshmen anyway.
“We made the decision in order to get the best five guys in. He’s [Smith] one of the best five guys. He’s going to be a heckuva player. There’s a couple of those young that are really good, young offensive linemen.”
Turnovers have been an issue in virtually every game. Penalties had not been a problem till the Cavaliers were whistled 13 times for 93 yards against Ball State.
“When I was at State, coach [Bill] Cowher used to always come in and talk to the team,” said O’Brien, referring to the former Pittsbugh Steelers’ head coach-turned-TV commentator.
“What he always harped on was, the [penalties] you can control are pre-snap and post-snap.
“Those are the ones that are upsetting – lining up wrong and personal fouls after the whistle. Once the ball is snapped and until the whistle blows, you’re at the mercy of what the official thinks is a foul and not a foul.
“Certainly, nobody here teaches holding and chop-blocking and pass interference. Those things are going to be called. The things we have to control over are what we have to eliminate.”
As for his tight-end group, O’Brien thinks that improvement will come this week with the return of junior Zach Swanson following a knee injury.
“It hurt a lot in that he was our best player at tight end,” said O’Brien of Swanson’s absence during losses to Pittsburgh and Ball State. “He allowed us to do some things at tight end that we haven’t been able to do.”
Swanson’s fellow junior, Jake McGee, leads the Cavaliers in receptions with 19. But, he was a high-school quarterback who was late in learning some of the finer points of blocking. Besides, UVa is frequently in two tight-end formations.
Said O’Brien: “Zach Swanson can’t get back fast enough to help this football team.”