Is Virginia now in the midst of a quarterback controversy that seemed to be brewing since training camp began?
That was the question posed to Cavaliers offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Bill Lazor after Virginia’s dramatic 17-16 victory over Penn State on Saturday. Lazor simply responded, “No,” even though Coach Mike London removed Rocco from the game in favor of Alabama transfer Phillip Sims late in the third quarter.
“What I’m most proud with Mike is to keep his composure and be prepared when his number comes up again,” Lazor said. “Nobody is surprised because that’s the kind of person Mike Rocco is. You can depend on him and he just proves it to us every day.”
But even as Virginia’s coaches and players tried to focus on the clutch plays Rocco made to save the Cavaliers on an afternoon when their offense sputtered frequently, there was no avoiding London’s decision. Especially because it appears he and Lazor weren’t exactly on the same wavelength when the move was made.
London explained the move as a way to give Rocco a chance to survey the field from the sideline, and that the plan all along was to bring him back in the game. Sims made the call to bring Rocco back easier when he orchestrated a three-and-out and fumbled during his two possessions in the game.
But when asked whether he knew if Rocco would go back in, Lazor could only say, “I expected he would go back in, but you never know what’s gonna happen.”
“It’s unfortunate when you’re the quarterback and things happen with the fumbles and interceptions and things. You’re looked as being a guy that’s blamed for that . . . and there’s a sense of urgency to make a change,” London said.
Here’s what doesn’t make sense, at least to this beat writer. If you didn’t want Rocco blamed for the struggles of the entire offense, why take him out of the game to begin with?
London attempted to clarify this, but even then, he only seemed to add fuel to the quarterback-controversy fire.
“I always believed that Michael has done a nice job, a great job and runs this team well,” London said. “We have another quarterback that’s a good quarterback that you have to give opportunities to, and there was no ‘you’re coming out because you’re bad’ or anything like that.”
Lucky for the Cavaliers, Rocco seems to be used to this sort of instability after splitting snaps with backup David Watford at times last year. He finished Saturday’s game 21 of 33 for 258 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. But he did his best work on Virginia’s game-winning touchdown drive, completing all six of his passes for 97 yards.
During his limited time in the game, Sims completed two of his three passes for five yards.
Lazor remained diplomatic about his two signal-callers, saying “both of them will be better quarterbacks after this game.” But he couldn’t help but be impressed with the way Rocco handled what looks to be an ongoing battle to keep his starting job.
“We’ve seen it time and time again, that he’ll take adversity, whether it’s from another team, his teammates, his coaches, from whatever situation and he’ll fight through it,” Lazor said.
“I was told a long time ago by a wise football person that we all rent these seats. I’m not nailed down. No one’s nailed down. We all rent these seats and we’re evaluated every day. It’s what makes it fun. It’s probably what gives you butterflies.”
Some other notes and quotes
*More on tight end Jake McGee later this week in the paper, but suffice to say he’s already become a dynamic weapon for Virginia’s offense through two games. The converted quarterback had four catches for 99 yards, including the game-winning touchdown reception and a key 44-yard grab as he was being interfered with on the Cavaliers’ final drive.
Which one was tougher to make? McGee’s answer might surprise you.
“It’s considered the easier one, but the [44-yard catch] where it’s completely on the fly, where it’s just instinct takes over, it happens easier than the [touchdown grab] when I was sitting there and it felt like forever. But I held onto it and we got the win.”
*It was an encouraging day for Virginia’s defense, which held strong despite being set up to fail by the offense. Four times the Cavaliers stopped Penn State in its tracks after turnovers left the Nittany Lions with prime field position inside Virginia’s 30-yard line.
Perhaps more importantly, Virginia got some pressure on Nittany Lions quarterback Matt McGloin, at one point forcing him out of the game with an elbow injury. The Cavaliers finished the game with two sacks, both courtesy of linebacker Steve Greer.
Defensive end Ausar Walcott didn’t tally a sack, but he was also a force. Playing for starter Bill Schautz much of the game (no word on why Schautz spent much of the afternoon on the sideline), Walcott was credited with three pass breakups thanks to his speed rush on the edge.
*Another tough game for Virginia’s talented running backs. Senior Perry Jones and sophomore Kevin Parks gained just 40 yards on 17 carries. Sophomore Clifton Richardson did not play for a second straight game. That’ll be a point of concern heading into next week’s showdown at Georgia Tech, and it wouldn’t surprise anyone if Virginia makes some changes to the interior of its offensive line.
“We have a good offensive line, but they’ve got to be able to do better,” London said.