Virginia Coach Mike London wants to make a bowl game again. He has made that clear since the preseason began, citing it as a sign of consistency that would cement the Cavaliers as a program on the rise.
So this week, coming off two lopsided losses in a row and a matchup against 3-0 Louisiana Tech on the docket, London sat his team down and reminded them that last year Virginia also entered the fifth week of the season with a 2-2 record. The players realize, though, that Saturday could a long way toward determining what direction these Cavaliers head this season.
“We definitely feel like last year wasn’t a fluke. That’s the team we are – to go to a bowl game every year and compete for an ACC championship every year,” linebacker D.J. Hill said this week. “We feel that’s who we are as a team. We don’t feel like that was a fluke and that’s what we try to do every week – is prove to people we’re a top contender.”
It’s troubling, though, that dating to last season Virginia has now lost four of its past five games against Football Bowl Subdivision competition. Plus, the Cavaliers are one bad Penn State kicker away from having five losses in a row in that regard — not to mention a 1-3 record this year.
Trying to piece together what has gone wrong starts with an offense that has averaged 14.7 points per game the past three weeks. Though there are plenty of issues, from a stagnant running game to the lack of a go-to receiver, it begins with junior quarterback Michael Rocco being unable to pick up where he left off at the end of last year. He is the only starting quarterback in the ACC with more interceptions (5) than touchdown passes (4) this season and he has led the Cavaliers on just one touchdown drive the past two weeks.
Though London said Rocco would start again Saturday, his leash figures to be considerably shorter than before. Alabama transfer Phillip Sims hasn’t wowed anyone during his limited snaps this year, but the Cavaliers will likely turn to him if Rocco continues to struggle early on Saturday. The bright side is that Louisiana Tech’s defense is allowing close to 500 yards and 37 points per game this year.
But more than the past two weeks, Virginia can’t afford to start slow and its offense can’t turn the ball over. The Bulldogs, who won the WAC last year, boast a spread-offense that has scored more than 50 points in every game this season. They’ll be without starting running back Tevin King, but quarterback Colby Cameron is completing close to 70 percent of his passes. He ranks fifth in the country in quarterback rating with 11 touchdowns and no interceptions through three games.
This will be another test for Virginia’s inexperienced secondary, which outside of allowing a 68-yard touchdown catch on the first series of the game, held up fairly well against TCU’s passing attack last week.
“I’d like to be able to play really good defense against them, but the reality of it is they’ve been running this offense for a while,” London said. “I think we are going to have to score some points. We are going to have to hang on to the ball and put some drives together.”
I pegged Virginia as a 6-6 team this year, but without a win over the Bulldogs I’m not sure how they get there (assuming at Duke, Maryland and Wake Forest the next three weeks are winnable games before a brutal stretch – at North Carolina State, Miami, North Carolina and at Virginia Tech – to end the season). But until this offense shows some signs of life it’s hard to pick the Cavaliers, especially since their defense will almost certainly struggle to slow down the Bulldogs.
My prediction: Louisiana Tech 41, Virginia 30
What do you think about Saturday’s game? Can Virginia’s offense win a shootout against the Bulldogs? Or will the Cavaliers re-enter ACC play with a sub-.500 record? Vote in the poll below and let me know how you think everything plays out in the comments section.