The Virginia offense seldom has struggled to get off to a productive start this season. It’s been keeping those scoring juices flowing into the second have that has been an issue.
But against Maryland on Saturday, the Cavaliers scored 17 points on their first three possessions of the second half and turned a one-point halftime lead into an 18-point advantage. During those three drives, sophomore quarterback Michael Rocco was everything Virginia needed him to be. Nothing more, and nothing less.
Rocco completed 9 of 12 passes for 117 yards and a touchdown on those three second-half possessions, all of which ended in the red zone. In that span – during which Rocco took 24 snaps – he accounted for 10 “good” plays and one “bad” play, according to a metric designed by East Carolina Offensive Coordinator Lincoln Riley.
Overall, Rocco turned in a bad play percentage* of 15, which – according to Riley’s method of evaluating quarterbacks – is just good enough to put the Cavaliers in position to win, which they did, 31-13.
* To review, every sack, interception, turnover, negative yardage play and offensive penalty that occurs while a particular quarterback is on the field is considered to be a bad play for said quarterback. According to Riley, a signal caller should never turn in a bad play percentage higher than 15 in any given game. Ideally, it would be no higher than 12 percent.
“I think Michael’s done, the last couple games and particularly this game, a great job managing the football team, managing the plays, making the audibles, making the throws, the checks and the reads,” Virginia Coach Mike London said Saturday. “Michael’s had a chance to take the reins, and his development has continued.”
On the day, Rocco threw for a career-high 307 yards on 23 of 36 passing (63.9 percent). He threw an interception in the fourth quarter on a high swing pass intended for tailback Perry Jones at the Virginia 23-yard line, which negated favorable field position the Cavaliers had gained after strong safety Rodney McLeod’s second interception of the afternoon.
But that was Rocco’s only blatant mistake of the day, and the Virginia defense forced Maryland to turn the ball over after four straight incompletions, so there ended up being no negative consequence to Rocco’s pick.
On the plus side, Rocco turned in a good play percentage* of 30. Saturday marked the first time in Virginia’s past three games in which Rocco posted a good play percentage that high. He had started off the season recording good play percentages of 30 or higher in six straight games.
* Every pass play of at least 15 yards, run play of at least 12 yards, touchdown and first down while a particular quarterback is on the field is considered to be a good play for said quarterback.
Let’s focus in on those first three drives of the second half, since that seemed to be when Rocco really found his stride. The Cavaliers’ first possession of the third quarter was a 13-play, 94-yard drive that ended with a one-yard touchdown run by Jones. Rocco ran 16 yards for a first down and two plays later threw a 22-yard pass to wideout Tim Smith on that offensive series. It was Virginia’s longest drive since its 40-3 win over FCS William & Mary on Sept. 3. In that game, the Cavaliers advanced 97 yards on a touchdown drive.
Virginia’s second drive of the third quarter Saturday featured an interesting twist. It began with true freshman backup quarterback David Watford under center for his first snap of the game. On first and 10 from the Virginia 34-yard line Watford handed the ball off to redshirt freshman Kevin Parks, who gained 15 yards. Then Watford came out, and Rocco re-entered.
On the second play of the possession – first and 10 from the Virginia 49-yard line – Rocco completed a 20-yard pass to Smith. Rocco exited, and Watford re-entered. Watford scrambled out of the pocket on first and 10 from the Maryland 31-yard line and gained one yard before running out of bounds. Out went Watford; in came Rocco.
Following Virginia’s 28-14 loss Oct. 22 to North Carolina State, London said Watford no longer would play complete series, but instead would come in for specific plays. Watford logged just one snap* during Virginia’s 28-21 win Oct. 27 at Miami, so Saturday was the first time we’d seen Rocco and Watford switch back and forth like that under London’s revised guidelines for quarterback usage.
*Watford ended up logging five snaps Saturday against Maryland. Four of those plays ended with Watford running the ball. He tallied a long of three yards and a net of negative-seven yards. On his final play of the afternoon, Watford fumbled the ball at the Maryland 18-yard line.
I remember wondering at the time whether such rapid rotation would affect the offense’s rhythm. It didn’t seem to.
Jones rushed for five yards on second down. Rocco completed a seven-yard pass to tight end Paul Freedman the next play to pick up the first down. Parks gained a yard on the ground, and then Rocco completed a short pass to the left flat to fullback Max Milien, who ran 17 yards for a touchdown. The Cavaliers had gone 66 yards in seven plays.
Virginia’s third drive of the second half featured a 30-yard pass from Rocco to Smith and a 28-yard run by Parks to end the third quarter. The Cavaliers possessed the ball for 10 minutes, 53 seconds in the third quarter. Rocco opened the fourth quarter by finding wideout Kris Burd on a seven-yard reception to the Maryland 11-yard line. But the drive stalled there, and Virginia eventually had to settle for a 28-yard field goal by senior placekicker Robert Randolph.
Rocco had a few other highlights Saturday. His 35-yard touchdown pass to Parks in the second quarter comes to mind. But on the hole, Rocco simply did what was asked of him. As London said, he managed the game, and managed it well. That’s all Virginia needed him to do, and it likely will be all it asks him to do the rest of the season.
If he can continue to do so effectively, the Cavaliers should continue to find themselves at least in position to come away from games victorious.