Virginia didn’t lose a chance at a second straight bowl appearance because of Coach Mike London’s two-quarterback system Thursday night. But his ongoing insistence on randomly inserting junior Michael Rocco and redshirt sophomore Phillip Sims into games sure left a lot of people scratching their heads following the Cavaliers’ 37-13 loss to North Carolina.
Though the quarterback carousel worked in the two games leading up to Thursday’s loss, many wondered why London wouldn’t give in to the old football adage that having two quarterbacks means you really have none. This past week, London even emphasized how random the rotation is, with the decisions coming on a series-by-series basis.
That confusing rationale came under scrutiny Thursday when London decided to play Rocco near the end of the second quarter after Sims had just led the Cavaliers on a 67-yard touchdown drive. To that point, Rocco had played two series and Sims just one. The coach’s vague explanation after the game didn’t help matters.
“The next series was up and Mike was the guy,” he said.
Rocco proceeded to throw a pick-six to North Carolina free safety Tre Boston on his first pass of the series, a ball that was intended for wide receiver Tim Smith. It didn’t contribute to Virginia’s fourth-quarter collapse, but many wondered after the game whether it was the result of the uncertainty from series-to-series.
Rocco said he was told after Sims’s touchdown pass that he would be going into the game, and that it wasn’t pre-determined. He emphasized, however, that the interception was simply a bad throw, but that he would make the same decision again.
Even more confusing was that Rocco then went out for the following drive, and Sims was used when the Cavaliers were in the two-minute drill before halftime. After all, it was Rocco who was less than a week removed from leading Virginia on a game-winning touchdown drive against Miami running the no huddle offense.
Rocco later conceded the rotation isn’t exactly the perfect situation, and the statistics indicated the lack of continuity might have been a detriment on this night. The Cavaliers finished just 2 of 15 on third-down conversions and were held to less than 400 yards for the first time since before the bye week.
“I’m not sure how the rhythm works, but whenever I get in the game, I try to do my best to get the guys going and be a leader out there, and when I’m not in the game I try to get Phil going,” Rocco said. “It’s not the easiest thing for a quarterback, but we’re both mature guys and we try to get the job done when we’re in.”
Sims was also diplomatic about it during his postgame comments.
“I’m just going with the flow,” he said. “As far as I know, we’re going by the series. After one series, they’ll you know who’s going in after that, so as far as I’m concerned, I’m in right now. If we score, we score and I don’t know who’s going in after that. My job is to go down and do the best I can do on that one possession. Whatever happens after that, happens.”
The two quarterbacks finished the game 19 of 33 for 205 yards, one touchdown and one interception. It would’ve been more had wide receiver Darius Jennings hauled in a deep ball from Sims during the fourth quarter. But what would have been an 81-yard touchdown pass bounced in-and-out of Jennings’s hands and fell innocently to the turf.
Though Sims said the play wasn’t one he likes running, the Chesapeake, Va., native was still shaking his head about it minutes after the game ended.
“I really didn’t have any thoughts going through my mind at the time,” Sims said. “It’s kind of unbelievable. I don’t know. It’s just the way the game went for us tonight. We didn’t connect on a few plays like that.”
***Virginia’s defense held North Carolina’s Gio Bernard to just 57 rushing yards Thursday, his second-lowest total of the season. But Tar Heels freshman wide receiver Quinshad Davis gauged the Cavaliers for 16 catches and 178 receiving yards, mostly on short passes and bubble screens as part of Coach Larry Fedora’s fast-paced spread offense.
“He just made the plays in the position they put him in,” said safety Anthony Harris, who led the team with a career-high 14 tackles. “They put him in good positions to make plays. We missed a few tackles and gave him some extra yards.”
Virginia was without freshman cornerback Maurice Canady, the two-time defending ACC defensive back of the week. He missed Thursday’s game because of a slight concussion, according to a Virginia spokesman. Freshman Anthony Cooper saw an increase in playing time as a result, and sophomore Drequan Hoskey started in Canady’s place.
But it was sophomore Demetrious Nicholson that got picked on by North Carolina quarterback Bryn Renner, especially in the first half. Nicholson gave up several completions early on and was called for a blatant pass interference in the end zone trying to cover Davis.
“Our mind-set was shut [Bernard] down and that’s what we did,” linebacker LaRoy Reynolds said. “I think it’s just the other things we should have focused on even more.”
***Right tackle Morgan Moses went down with what appeared to be an ankle injury during the closing minutes of the fourth quarter, the game having already been decided. London had no update on his status during his postgame news conference, but Moses was spotted on crutches near Virginia’s locker room.