Virginia Coach Mike London called last week for the Cavaliers’ offensive playbook to be opened up a little wider and for the passing game to become a little more vertical. London was after more big plays — ones that result in gains of at least 15 yards — specifically in the game’s early stages.
And against Southern Mississippi, offensive coordinator Bill Lazor – who had expressed similar sentiments following the Cavaliers’ 28-17 loss Sept. 17 at North Carolina – obliged. On Saturday, for the first time in four games this season, Virginia gained more yards passing (85) than rushing (40) in the first quarter.
The Cavaliers also scored more than three points in the first quarter for the first time this fall. Virginia had two offensive series in the first quarter against Southern Mississippi; both ended with touchdowns.
“Part of it’s got to be us, as coaches, is be willing to call play aggressively,” London said. “Whether it’s taking a shot, whether it’s, you know, combination routes that are downfield. There’s a number of things that we as coaches can do that would infuse or show the players, ‘Hey listen, we’re going to be aggressive on this,’ and start out that way.”
Interestingly enough, Virginia has averaged more total yards in the first quarter (106.5) this season than it has in the second (99.3) and third (100.3) quarters. The Cavaliers gain the most ground in the fourth quarter, when they average 121.5 total yards.
But while Virginia has had little trouble chewing up yardage in the first quarter, it has struggled to translate that into point production. The Cavaliers are averaging 4.8 points in the first quarter, which is lower than their point average in any other quarter. They are averaging 6.5 points in the second quarter, 8.5 points in the third quarter and nine points in the fourth quarter.
“Partly some of the players have to take on the mentality of when they come out of the tunnel, it’s not about the smoke, it’s about the first play, the first couple of plays of the first series of energy and passion that they bring,” London said. “I just think sometimes we start playing that way third and fourth quarter trying to catch up. We need to play that way from kickoff, from halftime, and then play like we’ve played from the third and fourth quarter on.”
Prior to the Southern Miss game, the Cavaliers’ initial offensive series had not been particularly fruitful. Against William & Mary, Virginia drove 70 yards in 13 plays on its first series, but had to settle for a field goal.
Cavaliers quarterback Michael Rocco threw an interception on the first play from scrimmage the next week at Indiana*. Virginia’s second drive that day advanced 36 yards on nine plays and concluded with a field goal.
* Rocco was attempting a 29-yard pass down the sideline, so at least Virginia was trying to be vertical and aggressive on that play.
At North Carolina, the Cavaliers’ first possession gained no yards in four plays. Virginia punted.
On their first series Saturday against Southern Miss, the Cavaliers drove 71 yards in 14 plays and scored on a six-yard touchdown run by Rocco. They advanced 69 yards on six plays in their next drive and scored on a nine-yard touchdown run by redshirt freshman tailback Kevin Parks.
Then Southern Miss ran a fake punt out of its own end zone and gained 31 yards to start the second quarter. The Golden Eagles tallied 14 unanswered points.
“Last game I think we started well,” right guard Luke Bowanko said Monday. “The first few drives we marched down there and scored. The fake punt was kind of a momentum shift. They got a long drive out of that. … I think it took maybe until that last quarter when stuff got on the line and our backs were against the wall that you only have one choice, and that’s to fight.”
Indeed, surging offensively late in the game has proven to be a pattern for Virginia thus far this season. The Cavaliers run/pass output has been fairly even during the first three quarters. In the fourth quarter, though, Virginia has relied heavily on its passing game. The Cavaliers have trailed entering the fourth quarter in their past two contests.
While the Cavaliers, on average, have gained more yards passing than rushing in all four quarters, the disparity is no greater than 10.3 yards in any of the first three quarters. In the fourth quarter, Virginia has gained an average of 47 more yards passing than rushing.
The Cavaliers trailed by eight entering the fourth quarter Saturday against Southern Miss. They gained 66 yards passing and 28 yards rushing in the final period, but managed just eight points. Virginia lost, 30-24.
“It’s tough,” Bowanko said. “Coming off a game like Indiana (a 34-31 victory Sept. 10) where it’s almost the same game. You start so strong and then you have a little lull there where maybe the momentum shifts and then you come back at the end.
“Two, three plays either way in each game changes the whole outcome. You could screw up the same 70 plays and win and it’s all good. You screw ‘em up and lose and you’re the worst person on earth.”
That might be a tad overdramatic, but his sentiment is clear.