Remember back on Sept. 3 when Virginia sophomore quarterback Michael Rocco did exactly what was asked of him, made sound decisions with the ball and led the Cavaliers to a 40-3 win over FCS William & Mary? Watching Rocco that night, it seemed like if he and the Virginia offense could mirror that approach the following 12 weeks, then maybe these Cavaliers would stand a chance to earn that bowl bid the players had talked about all throughout training camp.
Obviously, the competition grew much stiffer in the weeks that followed that season-opening victory, but something else changed too. Rocco performed adequately and then his ribs got injured and then the coaches began playing true freshman backup quarterback David Watford more each week and then Rocco started struggling and then Watford started struggling. And all the while, the offense steadily – if not dramatically – withered. It got to the point where the offense had become a liability to the position in which the defense had placed Virginia in games. Who would have predicted that at the season’s outset?
The situation grew so untenable that Coach Mike London decided to scrap his team’s two-quarterback rotation and rely solely on Rocco. The immediate result was promising. On Thursday, Virginia won at Miami, 28-21, which placed the Cavaliers (5-3) one victory shy of bowl eligibility. And Rocco, for his part, turned in his best performance since the William & Mary game. His outing was not spectacular, but it was reminiscent of the early-season approach that seemed so fruitful. He did exactly what he was asked. He made sound decisions with the ball.
That the Virginia offense demonstrated more sustained rhythm against the Hurricanes than it had in a long while was no coincidence. It was a direct reflection of London’s decision regarding the quarterback situation and of a return to an effective and form-fitting offensive game plan.
What the Cavaliers did to the Hurricanes defense – pounded the ball with consistent rushes, picked it apart with bubble screens and other short passes and mixed in a few trick plays here and there – best utilized the strengths of Rocco and the Virginia offense as a whole. They’ll have to adapt it slightly from week to week, to be sure, but it’s the formula that will put them in best position to play beyond November.
Rocco turned in a bad play percentage* of 11.3 on Thursday, a mark that East Carolina offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley – the innovator of the “bad play percentage” quarterback evaluation method – would describe as ideal. Of the seven games in which Rocco took the majority** of the snaps, Thursday was the second time this season his performance tallied a bad play percentage lower than 12 and, thus, fell into the “ideal” classification. The only other time? The William & Mary game, of course.
* To review, every sack, interception, turnover, negative yardage play and offensive penalty that occurs while a particular quarterback is on the field is considered to be a bad play for said quarterback. According to Riley, a signal caller should never turn in a bad play percentage higher than 15 in any given game. Ideally, it would be no higher than 12 percent.
** During Virginia’s 28-14 loss Oct. 22 to North Carolina State, Rocco took 39 snaps, while Watford took 32 snaps. It was the closest the two quarterbacks have come all season to an equal time share in a single game. Watford logged one snap Thursday, a quarterback draw in which he gained four yards.
He completed 11 of 20 passes for 226 yards and two touchdowns against Miami. The Cavaliers didn’t ask him to win the game for them, and he didn’t try to. As London put it afterward, Rocco “managed the offense.” He did not throw an interception, which was a positive sign for Virginia fans. He also did not allow the offense to stall for prolonged stretches. The Cavaliers went three-and-out once all night.
Rocco “had great touch on the ball, particularly on some of those screens,” London said.
Indeed, and there were more than a few of them. In fact, Virginia’s first touchdown came off a bubble screen pass to true freshman wide receiver Darius Jennings, who caught the ball three yards behind the line of scrimmage and then sprinted 53 yards for the score.
Rocco does not possess fantastic arm strength, and aside from that, he has said he’s more comfortable executing the shorter routes in Virginia’s passing game. And aside from that, the Cavaliers have a decent number of dynamic receiving options (Jennings, Tim Smith, Perry Jones and Dominique Terrell come to mind) who, when given the ball in open space, are difficult for opposing defenders to track down. The difficulty has been getting them the ball in open space.
Against Miami on Thursday, that wasn’t an issue. Early in the fourth quarter, with Virginia ahead by just six points, the Cavaliers motioned Jones out wide to Rocco’s right. A Hurricanes linebacker followed Jones’s progression. It was third and two from the Virginia 22-yard line. Miami blitzed, but Lazor had noticed the Hurricanes tendency to blitz the Cavaliers on third downs and so he’d called for max protection.
Jones ran a quick post route and gained the inside edge on the linebacker in coverage. Rocco hit Jones in stride, and Jones sprinted 78 yards for a touchdown. Virginia went for two, and Rocco connected with Smith for the conversion.
And that was it. Rocco’s two touchdown passes on the night traveled a combined 15 yards in the air. With a game plan that called for heavy doses of Virginia’s potent rushing attack – the Cavaliers carried the ball 42 times for 207 yards – that was all Rocco needed to do.
Rocco turned in a good play percentage* of 29 against Miami. That’s not great – it’s the second straight game and second time all season he has turned in a good play percentage less than 30 – but it’s not awful either. On a night when Rocco wasn’t making mistakes and the Virginia defense was mostly solid, it was good enough to put the Cavaliers in position to earn a victory.
* Every pass play of at least 15 yards, run play of at least 12 yards, touchdown and first down while a particular quarterback is on the field is considered to be a good play for said quarterback.
“I felt like Michael Rocco was prepared to play,” Lazor said. “I thought he really was focused.”
And, perhaps because Rocco was on the field for all but one offensive snap, the offense Thursday was able to keep up its positive momentum nearly the whole game. Some successful trickery didn’t hurt the Cavaliers confidence, either.
With just more than four minutes remaining in the first half, Virginia faced second and 11 from the Miami 37-yard line. The Cavaliers lined up in I-formation, and at the snap, Rocco faked a handoff to fullback Max Milien to his left and pitched the ball to Jones, who was heading to Rocco’s right. Jones ran about 10 steps toward the sideline, which drew the Miami defenders in.
Meantime, Smith ran about five yards and then slowed up, which induced the Hurricanes cornerback in coverage to head toward Jones in the Virginia backfield. Smith quickly re-accelerated, and was wide open when Jones’s halfback pass fell into his arms in the end zone.
A week after tallying a season-low 249 total yards against North Carolina State, the Virginia offense had recorded 252 total yards by halftime Thursday. By the end of the night, the Cavaliers had racked up 470 total yards of offense. That’ll do most games.
“Whenever you’re able to play in a full game, you’re going to have ups and downs in every game,” Rocco said. “But we came out and we had a balanced attack and our coaches did a great job of putting a game plan together to attack them, their weaknesses. And we did. We scored points when we needed to.”