CHARLOTTESVILLE — David Watford completed 47 passes in Virginia's first two games this season, versus Brigham Young and Oregon. None gained more than 20 yards, a conservative approach that left fans, and perhaps players and coaches, far too cranky by September standards.
Which explains Watford's reaction to his 38-yard touchdown connection to Tim Smith in last week's 49-0 pasting of VMI.
A breath that needs to become at least an occasional breeze, a breath that could become gale-force against the Panthers.
Last season Pitt ranked among the nation's top 25 in scoring defense, total defense and pass defense. With eight returning starters, including three in the secondary, that group figured to be an asset in 2013.
Under new coordinator Matt House — he succeeded Dave Huxtable, who took the same position at North Carolina State — the Panthers (2-1, 1-0 ACC) are 122nd, next-to-last, in pass efficiency defense. Only Florida International (0-4) is worse.
Florida State freshman Jameis Winston went Xbox on Pitt in his college debut, completing 25-of-27 for 356 yards and four touchdowns. Eight of his passes gained at least 20 yards as the Seminoles cruised 41-13 on Labor Day night.
"Their receivers ran great routes," Watford said of FSU. "They were able to get great separation from the man coverage Pitt plays."
"They played a team that was hot that day," Virginia coach Mike London said of the Panthers. "It's hard sometimes to put the brakes on something (like that)."
Last week, Pitt intercepted Duke backup Brandon Connette — starter Anthony Boone is sidelined by a broken collarbone — four times, returning one for a touchdown in a 58-55 victory. But Connette still passed for 323 yards and four scores, with completions of 25, 62 and 75 yards, the latter two for touchdowns.
So if Watford, Smith and other receivers such as Darius Jennings and Dominique Terrell, not to mention tight end Jake McGee, are determined to go vertical with the passing game, now is the time. McGee, for example, leads the 2-1 Cavaliers with 14 receptions, none longer than 11 yards, with a paltry 5.8 average, less than half his 13.4 norm of last season.
"That's something we really look to do," Watford said, "that vertical passing game. … Letting the guys go make plays. … I know Tim can make that play. He's done it numerous times in practice. Just to be able to do it on the field, in a game where it actually counts, that's the most important thing. We're definitely looking to do it more. Not just with Tim, but with Darius, Dominique and all of our wide receivers, because they're all home-run hitters."
Watford's assessment of his teammates is predictably kind, but the truth is, none has emerged as a consistent deep target at any point in his career. A first-time starter this season, Watford is another variable in the equation — he needs to become more comfortable with the longer routes at his disposal.
"I can't lie," Watford said. "I have struggled with that, just being able to stretch the ball downfield. And it's not that I lack the confidence, or we don't have the playmakers. It's just something you have to work on. People see it on Sundays (in the NFL) or Saturdays (in college games), people just throwing the ball and people catching it.
"But there's a lot more behind it than that. … There's a lot of work that goes into it. We've definitely been working on it, and that's something we've been really stressing these last couple of weeks."
Apparently, so has Pitt. Panthers quarterback Tom Savage threw six touchdown passes against Duke, four of at least 21 yards. He completed a 67-yarder to Devin Street and a 69-yarder to true freshman Tyler Boyd in a 56-second span of the first half.
A sophomore, Watford has thrown six touchdown passes in his college career, three as a true freshman in 2011, three this season.
"David has options to throw the ball deep … and it's all about confidence," London said. "I know as we move forward here that David will be looking to throw those balls deeper and get it in those guys' hands that can run for us."