Inside The Game: Pitt

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Jameel Sewell

Jameel Sewell , who admittedly struggled in the third quarter, had one of his best days as a Cavalier quarterback against Pitt on Saturday. He finished 16-of-31 passing for 169 yards. That showing included a career-high 3 touchdown passes and 0 interceptions or sacks. While it wasn’t a perfect wire-to-wire outing – Sewell had a couple of errant throws and nearly tossed a couple of interceptions – it was another positive step.

“In the early going he made some big time plays. Unless a guy is having one of those Hall of Fame games, hardly any of them hit every pass in the game. He hit something like his first eight or nine in a row and then it just kind of went the other way a little bit,” Virginia coach Al Groh said. “But he had a good eye for the game and it really wasn’t causing us any undue concern. Obviously, we would have liked to have completed some of those balls and I’m sure he would have too, but we didn’t feel like ‘Oh geez, this is going south.’ We felt he’d get back in his rhythm and he did. He came back with a real good drive throwing the ball and that’s kind of the way we wanted him to be able to finish.”

The latter part of that explanation provides an important revelation, even if it was only in one game with the outcome all but decided in the first 15 minutes. Groh saying that Sewell had a “good eye” for the game is an indicator that he is making better reads on plays. That’s probably why 8 different players caught passes on Saturday and why a variety of routes seemed to reappear in the playbook. Those patterns have been there all along, but now the Cavs’ young signal caller is starting to identify situations more accurately and more quickly.

Virginia’s coach isn’t the only one who is noticing a change in Sewell’s on-field performance and how he’s using a lot of different options on offense.

“It’s great. This, I think, was the second time this season where all the tight ends had a catch in a game,” Stupar said. “He’s really starting to click as a quarterback with his balls and timing and everything like that. It’s really fun to watch him just spread the ball around because he doesn’t really look like he has a favorite receiver. He kind of throws it to everybody and who’s open at the time and that’s always good.”

Sewell said his improvement over the course of the season could be attributed to being more comfortable and using better mechanics.

“Just more focus on my feet. My mechanics were terrible at the beginning of the season,” Sewell said. “Coach Mike [Groh] has been emphasizing making sure my feet are set and making sure they’re not too close and certain things. He’s working with me every day about it – he has something to say to me before every day. I’m just trying to take all his coaching in and try to get better.”

Of course, Sewell can still get better. After all, he only has 5 touchdown passes and 589 yards passing on the season – that averages out to a little more than 100 yards and 1 touchdown each week. The performance has gotten better from game to game, though. At Wyoming: 48% completions, 87 yards, 0 TDs, 2 INTs. Against Duke: 64% completions, 60 yards, 1 TD, 0 INTs. At UNC: 65% completions, 96 yards, 0 TDs, 0 INTs. Against Georgia Tech: 64% completions, 177 yards, 1 TD, 0 INTs. And against Pitt: 52%, 169 yards, 3 TDs, 0 INTs.

Plus, Sewell is throwing to more receivers and completing more downfield passes. What gives?

“I feel my focus has grown, which has made everything open up for me,” Sewell said. “I’m just focused because this team has a great chance to go far and I don’t want to be the reason for the team not being able to go far.”

Groh hinted at the need for continued improvement as well, perhaps with similar thoughts in mind about this team’s final destination. That would make sense watching Sewell’s final drive.

On that 15-play scoring drive, Sewell attempted 10 passes even though Virginia held a comfortable 37-14 lead. The targets included Staton Jobe , Tom Santi , John Phillips , Cedric Peerman , and Cary Koch. Most were out of passing sets and not off of play-action plays or rollouts. In other words, Sewell was being put through a mini practice session in real game situations. That’s because the coaches know this team will need to be better with the passing game at some point this season if and when an opponent effectively shuts down the ground attack.

“We still feel like our team is a work in progress and the last time we had the ball gave us the opportunity to work on some things we need to do to continue that progress,” Groh said.

Fast Starts

The Virginia football team scored for the fourth straight contest on its first offensive drive of the game. Those fast starts have been beneficial as UVa won each of those games.

In Saturday night’s game, it was more than one drive – it was a four-drive avalanche that led to a 27-point first quarter and effectively buried the visitors early. The Cavs came out on fire as a mix of runs, misdirection plays, and play-action passes carved up the Panthers’ defense. Yes, the defense (two forced three-and-out series) and special teams (two big punt returns and a forced fumble on a kickoff) delivered field position to the offense on a silver platter for each of the early possessions. Still, Virginia’s 27 first-quarter points were the most by the Hoos in a quarter since they put up 30 in the third quarter of a 47-26 win at N.C. State in 1999 – in other words, the offense was rocking.

Here’s a sampling of the plays during the onslaught.

    Rashawn Jackson ‘s first career touchdown came in the explosive first quarter.

  • Cedric Peerman runs right for 11 yards.
  • Peerman screen pass for 15 yards.
  • Jameel Sewell keeper on read option play for 11 yards.
  • Play action before Sewell hits Jonathan Stupar for a 2-yard touchdown.
  • Sewell swing pass to Peerman (more on this later) for 16 yards.
  • Play action before Sewell hits Dontrelle Inman for 12 yards.
  • Peerman runs on read option for 10 yards.
  • Play action before Sewell connects with Tom Santi on an 18-yard jumpball touchdown.
  • Play action out of a jumbo set (two tight ends and a fullback) before Sewell hits Rashawn Jackson in the flat for a 5-yard touchdown.

Stupar’s touchdown started the scoring outburst.

“We’ve run, I think, runs almost every play down on the goal line so we really haven’t had that many pass plays. We called the one that we’ve been working on for a couple of weeks now and they bought the run fake,” Stupar said. “Ced did a great job and Jameel did a great job selling the run. I was able to get behind the safety and made the catch.”

Onside Opener

Pittsburgh opened the game as the kicking team and pulled a trick out of the bag immediately by using an onside kick. The move backfired when a review indicated that Pitt illegally touched the ball before it traveled 10 yards. That error gave UVa the ball at the Panthers’ 39-yard line; the hosts took immediate advantage with three straight first down gainers and the 2-yard touchdown pass from Sewell to Stupar. That gave Virginia a 6-0 lead because Chris Gould ‘s extra point attempt was blocked.

What was Coach Wannstedt thinking with the call?

“That’s a play you have all seen us use. We are four out of five on that. We work on that 10 times a week. It is one of the best things we do,” Wannstedt said. “I haven’t seen a team [like Virginia] in a long time set up their return people 15 yards off the ball. If there was ever an opportunity to make that play, it was tonight. We discussed it all week. We worked on it all week. Our players were excited about doing it. … I thought it would be a way for us to steal a possession.”

In Sunday’s teleconference with Coach Groh, he said Wanndstedt was right about the Cavaliers’ front line being off the ball.

“Yeah, it’s just one of those things where guys keep edging back a little bit all the time and try to get a headstart. We got a little bit further back than where we would like to be and where we should be,” Groh said. “So we profited by it, we got the ball, and we learned a lesson and we’ve made the improvement.”

The Good And The Bad

Speaking of special teams, there was some good news and some bad news against Pittsburgh. Let’s start with the bad news: a blocked extra point and a muffed punt accounted for eight points (minus 1 for Virginia, plus 7 for Pitt) in the final margin of victory.

Vic Hall accounted for the fumbled fielding attempt late in the second quarter when he tried to fair catch a high punt while running forward. The ball ricocheted free and gave Pitt the ball at UVa’s 22-yard line; LeSean McCoy made the mistake costly when he capped the drive with a touchdown at the 5:00 mark of the second quarter.

Virginia recovers a fumble on special teams.

But enough with the bad. The Cavs had a good night on kickoff coverage and punt returns (minus the one fumble). One of the coverage highlights belonged to Ras-I Dowling and Denzel Burrell , who combined to secure a turnover that set up Virginia’s third touchdown of the first quarter. Dowling dislodged the ball while tackling Pitt’s Lowell Robinson and Burrell pounced on it to give UVa possession at the Panthers’ 26.

Another coverage highlight was negated by a Pitt holding penalty, but it still drew an excited reaction from a packed house at Scott Stadium. On the play, Robinson found a little daylight and burst through the initial wave of Cav defenders. Gould was waiting and leveled Robinson with a jarring, wrap-him-up-and-plant-him tackle. The fans loved it. So did Gould, who walked around the UVa sidelines for several minutes with shoulders held high and a tough guy swagger – it drew plenty of congratulations from his teammates.

“It was real good. … A lot of players clearly think of Chris as a true football player and mostly because he’s been such a hardcore active participant in all of the offseason program, the weight training, the agility, and all of that business,” Groh said. “So he clearly enjoyed having the opportunity to on the field step up and do the same things that his teammates do.”

But the icing on the cake came late in the fourth quarter when the Hoos pulled out their own trick play. The Cavs faked a field goal and Hall carried the ball in for the 4-yard touchdown with 5:25 remaining in the game.

Did the Cavaliers waste a trick play in an unnecessary situation? Groh said this particular fake applied to a look from Pitt.

“That was a play specific to the look we were expecting to get. … In other words, it’s not necessarily a standard call; it was an opponent specific call. If we get other looks, then we would have other possibilities to do things with Vic,” Groh said.

Swing Passes Return

One of the more effective plays early in Al Groh’s Virginia tenure was the use of the swing pass with the running backs. For clarity, a swing pass is when the quarterback throws a ball horizontally to a running back on the run in the flat. Against Pitt on Saturday, the Hoos utilized the pattern heavily with Cedric Peerman being the leading beneficiary. Peerman led the team in both receptions (4) and receiving yards (44).

“I like being out there on the edge and just trying to make one guy miss,” Peerman said. “I’m comfortable out there.”

As the Sabre noted in its pre-game scouting reports, it wasn’t surprising to see the backs heavily involved in the game plan. Sewell indicated after the game that the swing pass was just what opened up against the Panthers and that’s why it was heavily featured.

“That’s what they gave me,” Sewell said. “I had a couple of options and nobody would guard [Cedric] so I would just go ahead and let him work his magic and he got us some good yardage.”

Cedric Peerman had time to celebrate on his way in for this touchdown.

When The Stretch Play Looks Great

Peerman’s final touchdown run came on a version of the stretch play to the left. Peerman cruised in from 13 yards out. UVa’s Jordy Lipsey said it would “definitely” be a fun play to watch in film study.

“That’s how we design it you know,” Lipsey said grinning. “That’s how we try to do it.”

Peerman said his part of the play was reasonably easy – just find the really big opening and run.

“I felt pretty much the whole left side of the defense sort of run to the edge and I saw a big, gaping hole up the middle – I couldn’t have missed it,” Peerman said. “I just tried to hit it as hard as I could and get up field.”

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