The question wasn’t meant to provoke a serious response, but given the way Virginia sophomore quarterback Michael Rocco’s season has gone thus far, it had the potential to create a semi-awkward moment. During the Cavaliers’ 28-21 win Thursday at Miami, senior tailback Perry Jones, on the run, threw a 37-yard touchdown pass with precision, and on Monday, Rocco was asked how concerned he now was about Jones contending for playing time under center.
“I’ve heard that joke a lot lately,” Rocco said with a grin.
It’s been a strange past two months for Rocco. He has started every game for a Cavaliers squad that is 5-3 and one win away from becoming bowl eligible for the first time since 2007. And yet, his status did not completely change from being a Virginia quarterback to being the Virginia quarterback until a week ago as the team came off its most disappointing defeat of the year.
It was then that Coach Mike London elected to scrap the two-quarterback rotation of Rocco and true freshman David Watford in exchange for a game plan that relied almost exclusively on Rocco alone. The hope was that Rocco’s confidence would rise and that the team’s offense would follow in step. Though just one game has taken place since that strategic adjustment, the desired effects seem to have transpired thus far.
“Really, the flow of the game is the biggest thing,” Rocco said. “Staying in the game and knowing that you are going to get back in the next series, even if you have a bad series on the previous series, knowing the flow of the game and being able to stay in the flow of the game is the biggest thing. It was a great flow of the game, obviously, in the Miami game, and we were able to come out with a big victory.”
Rocco completed 11 of 20 passes for 226 yards and two touchdowns against the Hurricanes. Perhaps most crucial, he did not throw an interception. Rather than force a throw or toss an incomplete pass, Rocco opted for a checkdown target, adjustments he said he focused on making in the four days between Virginia’s 28-14 loss to North Carolina State and its road win at Miami.
On the season, Rocco has completed 59.4 percent of his passes for 1,412 yards, six touchdowns and eight interceptions. His quarterback rating of 120.01 ranks ninth out of the 11 ACC signal callers that have logged enough playing time to qualify.
But playing time has – or at least, had – been the issue. Watford has played in every game this season, and his time on the field increased after Rocco suffered a rib injury during a Sept. 24 loss to Southern Mississippi. A pattern emerged in which Rocco would lead the offense to early success, be removed in favor of Watford for one first-half series, return and never quite be able to regain the same degree of rhythm.
“I was a little frustrated, but all I can worry about is how I play,” Rocco said. “Some of those games I didn’t play as well as I could have.”
Rocco said he always has felt like he had a firm grasp on the Virginia quarterback job. He said the title of being the starting quarterback is not in his mind-set. And yet, he also said each game has been succeeded by the same charge.
“I really go out every week trying to win the job solely and do my best as a quarterback,” Rocco said.
Perhaps now that feeling is less sharp. Not the desire to play his best, but the constant uncertainty of knowing whether he’d done enough to earn the start the following Saturday.
While Rocco said he doesn’t feel as though his attitude or approach with his teammates has changed significantly since London announced Watford’s reduced role early last week – nor does he feel their attitude toward him has undergone any sort of dramatic alteration – he did acknowledge feeling a greater sense of rhythm in his play as Thursday’s game against Miami progressed.
“Being able to be out there every series with the team and with the offense and keep things rolling, there were some key third downs that we got, and there were some that we didn’t get,” Rocco said. “So being able to make corrections on the sideline and knowing you were getting back in there to do it again on the next series was a big deal.”
Also a big deal: Not hearing his teammates on the sideline wonder aloud who would be going in at quarterback on the next offensive possession.
“It’s kind of different whenever you’re actually out on the field and things get changed where your teammates start saying, ‘Who’s the guy? Who’s going to be in next?’ That’s where it gets questioned,” Rocco said. “But during the week of preparation I really felt that nothing changed, and I was who I was the whole season.”
London noticed as much. He said Monday that Rocco rarely this season has wavered from his typically reserved and composed demeanor.
There are times, London said, when he would prefer a “rah-rah” type of quarterback, but only if that sort of approach fit said quarterback’s personality. He wouldn’t want a quarterback to force it, to try to be something he’s not. London knows that Rocco is competitive, and that, he said, is what matters most.
And if Rocco can continue to throw for 200-plus yards against Virginia’s opponents, London said, it’s fine by him if Rocco continues to remain less on the boisterous side. The coach is hoping the new quarterback arrangement will continue to enable Rocco to feel comfortable enough to spur the Cavaliers’ offense.
“Hopefully,” London said, “now that Michael has the opportunity to be the quarterback, we’ll get even more consistent play, we’ll get better play, we’ll get more confidence in his play.”