Rocco attempted a career-high number of passes (41) and threw for a career-high number of yards (312). He completed 63.4 percent of his throws.
But Rocco’s development was more accurately marked by his ability Saturday to limit his mistakes, as well as the mistakes of the entire offense. Granted, Auburn’s defense is not the best the SEC has to offer this season, but it’s still an SEC defense. The standard of play and the caliber of the players, on the whole, simply are a little bit higher in that conference.
Use that as perspective when taking the following into account: Rocco was sacked once. Virginia was charged with one offensive penalty. The Cavaliers lost one fumble at the end of a 10-yard reception. They were stopped on run plays four times behind the line of scrimmage.
And Rocco – who at one point this season was picked off seven times in a three-game span – threw one interception that wasn’t his fault.
Rocco turned in a bad play percentage* of 11.3 on Saturday. Some may still doubt whether Rocco should be Virginia’s starting quarterback in 2012, but after the way he played in the second half of the 2011 season, his qualifications for the job are difficult to argue.
* 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 East Carolina offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley, who created the bad play percentage metric, a quarterback’s bad play percentage never should be more than 15. Ideally, it would be 12 or less.
“The passing game, we’ve just been working on all the details to get that, production-wise, to start catching up a little bit to what our run game is doing,” Virginia offensive coordinator Bill Lazor said Saturday night. “And a big part is always going to be the quarterback. I think Michael is maturing. We’re working hard to put him in real tough situations in practice because that’s how you grow as a quarterback, and he’s getting better.”
The turning point for Rocco came on Oct. 23, when Coach Mike London announced the Cavaliers no longer would proceed with a dual-quarterback system. A night earlier, Rocco and true freshman David Watford split time in a disastrous 28-14 home loss to North Carolina State.
Once London and Lazor handed the offense’s reins solely to Rocco, the player began to flourish. In the final six games of the season – Saturday night included – Rocco threw for more than 200 yards five times. He’d done so twice in the first seven games.
Rocco’s completion percentage improved from 60 percent in the first seven games to 62 percent in the final six games. And while that’s not a huge jump, consider that Rocco’s average number of pass attempts per game increased – from 26 to 30.7 – as well.
Rocco has acknowledged the benefit of no longer having to look over his shoulder after every bad decision or play that he makes. In fact, the quarterback has said, the security of knowing that he’s going to be able to head right back out onto the field to try to correct his mistakes has played a significant role in his improved play.
Despite spending the first seven games of the season splitting time* with Watford, Rocco turned in the fourth-most prolific passing season in Virginia program history. He threw for 2,671 yards on the year, which ranks only behind Marc Verica (2,799 in 2010) and Matt Schaub (2,952 in 2003 and 2,976 in 2002) as far as single-season passing totals. Verica and Rocco set those marks in Lazor’s first two seasons as Virginia’s offensive coordinator.
* To be fair, with the exception of the N.C. State game, Rocco and Watford were not splitting time 50-50. In most cases, it was more of a 75-25 split. Still, give Rocco an average of 10 more pass attempts per game in each of those first seven contests, and he probably would have surpassed Verica’s passing mark from 2010.
Rocco completed 26 passes on Saturday, which was a Virginia bowl record. On the night, Rocco turned in a season-high good play percentage* of 35.2. He threw two touchdown passes to fifth-year senior wideout Kris Burd. He completed passes to nine different Cavaliers receivers.
* 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.
Perhaps most importantly, he seemed in command of the huddle the entire night, and even when Virginia trailed by 11 late in the third quarter, the Cavaliers didn’t seem out of contention due to the manner in which the Rocco and the Virginia offense were operating.
“I thought his poise was very good” Saturday, Lazor said. “From the sideline it looked like he was on rhythm. He was throwing on time, which is really important in our offense, and it helped him be accurate.”
Rocco’s final pass of the night was intercepted after redshirt freshman tailback Kevin Parks appeared to catch the ball, but then was hit by an Auburn defender. The collision knocked the ball out of Parks’s right hand, and it floated in the air until being grabbed by Tigers linebacker Jake Holland.
It was unfortunate that such a strong performance ended that way for Rocco, but that throw shouldn’t mar what otherwise was an impressive night for the sophomore quarterback.