Virginia’s quarterback debate raged on Saturday, and with the Cavaliers about to re-enter ACC play for good in the midst of a three-game losing streak, it will once again be the focus this week.
Even though backup Phillip Sims replaced starter Michael Rocco and almost led Virginia to an improbable come-from-behind victory in Saturday’s 44-38 loss to Louisiana Tech, Coach Mike London wasn’t ready to declare the Alabama transfer his new signal caller Sunday night.
But he certainly sounds closer to announcing a change than he has at any point this season.
“We’re looking at everything that we do, how we do it, who’s doing it, why they’re doing it, why we’re calling it, all those things,” London said when asked about potentially making a change. “We have to make sure we’re doing the right things by the players and then, more than anything else, by the team.”
Regardless of what signal caller was in the game Saturday, London was encouraged that his offense showed the sort of explosiveness that had mostly been limited to practices this year. Against Louisiana Tech, Virginia had nine plays of 15 or more yards and scored more points than it had against Football Bowl Subdivision competition this season.
But a closer look at those exciting moments might offer a hint as to what direction the Cavaliers will go under center this weekend when they travel to Duke for a Coastal division battle.
Rocco appeared for 52 snaps Saturday and Virginia had five plays of 15 or more yards during that time. Although it should be noted, Rocco only played a direct role in four of them since one was a 36-yard halfback pass from running back Perry Jones to wide receiver Tim Smith that resulted in a touchdown in the first quarter.
But Rocco didn’t have any big plays after a 16-yard completion to Jones with less than 13 minutes remaining in the second quarter, which also happened on the last scoring drive Rocco orchestrated. Virginia settled for a 35-yard field goal by place kicker Drew Jarrett to take a 24-10 lead.
From there, Rocco fell apart. After starting the game by completing nine of his first 10 passes for 225 yards and two touchdowns, he connected on just 5 of his final 13 throws and had three interceptions.
The last giveaway was returned for a touchdown and earned Rocco a seat on the bench to watch Sims, but London indicated Sunday that blame for the first two interceptions lay more with Rocco’s intended receiver.
Sims, meanwhile, also completed four passes of more than 15 yards but he accomplished that in just 30 snaps upon entering Saturday’s game with about five minutes remaining in the third quarter. In fact, Sims had at least one explosive play on all three series in which he appeared. He was also the catalyst for Virginia’s comeback effort in the fourth quarter, and if not for a missed 39-yard field goal by Jarrett on Sims’s first drive of the game, the Cavaliers would have scored on every possession he played.
Sims finished the game 10 of 17 for 166 yards and two touchdowns. Jones also had his first 100-yard receiving day and wide receiver Darius Jennings ended up with a career-high 136 receiving yards. But the potential for more offensive fireworks was still eating at London considering Virginia couldn’t come away with a victory.
“Those are the things that we can be and the type of talent that we have,” he said. “Gosh, we just need to put four quarters together and play to that strength.”
— Sims and Virginia didn’t get a chance to complete the comeback late in the fourth quarter when the Cavaliers were called for 12 men on the field with Louisiana Tech facing fourth-and-one. It was part of an afternoon that saw Virginia commit 16 penalties — one short of a school record — for 145 yards. It offset the fact that the Cavaliers out-gained Louisiana Tech, 625-385, a notable achievement given the Bulldogs’ offensive capabilities.
On Sunday, London said he would address the penalty issue by limiting future playing time for the egregious offenders. Through five games this season, the Cavaliers are the most penalized team in the ACC.
“That’s nothing that we teach or want and players that do that will see their playing time diminished and limited because we don’t need players getting involved with penalties due to self-control,” London said.
— London said the team is “hoping to hear good news” this week in regards to senior linebacker LaRoy Reynolds. Reynolds underwent a medical procedure on Sep. 21 after injuring his hand in Virginia’s loss at Georgia Tech. Sophomore D.J. Hill has started in his place the past two games.
— Virginia will travel to Duke on Thursday evening, a day earlier than usual, for this week’s game. London said he is anticipating a lot of traffic in the Raleigh/Durham area with Duke, North Carolina and North Carolina State all hosting home football games Saturday.