As you might have noticed, Virginia sophomore quarterback Michael Rocco was pulled from Saturday’s game against Southern Mississippi in the third quarter after throwing his third interception of the day. He was replaced with true freshman David Watford, and the kid ended up turning in a pretty decent performance.
Afterward, Coach Mike London insisted Rocco remained the Cavaliers’ top choice at quarterback and that Rocco only was removed from the game because he’d been injured on a hit he took late in the first half while throwing his second interception. And that seemed like a plausible explanation until Rocco spoke to reporters and said he was fine (“Seriously, I’m fine,” he said.).
So now Virginia not only has to find a way to recover from a 30-24 home loss to a middling Conference-USA opponent, the Cavaliers also have to spend the coming week dealing with the uncertainty that has developed around its quarterback spot.
To recap: London said there is no quarterback controversy because Rocco is the starter and will remain the starter unless he proves too injured to play. Rocco said he wasn’t seriously injured and that whatever pain he was dealing with during the third quarter had no impact on his second-half throws. Rocco was pulled from the game and replaced by Watford, who took advantage of the opportunity to showcase some of his skills.
So either everything is settled or nothing is.
If it makes you feel any better, Virginia fans, the Cavaliers’ next opponent – Idaho – already has suffered three losses this season by a combined total of 71 points.
1) Perry Jones. With redshirt freshman tailback Kevin Parks dealing with what appears to be a lower-leg injury, Jones got a majority of the carries Saturday. He rushed the ball 17 times for 82 yards. Jones was a popular receiving target, as well. He caught six passes for 47 yards, which made him Virginia’s second-leading receiver on the day.
2) Defensive pressure. The Cavaliers said entering Saturday that they wanted to show improvement in their pass rush, and they backed up that claim by recording three sacks. Linebacker Aaron Taliaferro earned his first career sack. Defensive end Cam Johnson notched his second sack of the season. Defensive tackles Matt Conrath and Nick Jenkins earned a half-sack each, as well. Virginia also tallied 11 tackles for a loss.
3) David Watford. Did he take Scott Stadium by storm? No. But he did demonstrate a good amount of composure for a true freshman being told to take the reins – temporarily, at least – of an FBS offense. Watford’s first three drives in the second half stalled rather quickly, but his fourth ended up being a 10-play scoring drive in which Watford made impressive athletic efforts to evade oncoming defenders while throwing a one-yard touchdown pass and then the two-point conversion pass. On the day, he completed 10 of 20 passes for 81 yards. He also ran five times for 22 yards, including one 15-yard rush on Virginia’s final drive.
1) Defensive struggles on third down. Defensive Coordinator Jim Reid said after the game Saturday that one of the goals he sets for his defense every game is to prevent the opposing offense from converting on better than 35 percent of third downs. Southern Miss converted on 10 of 21 third downs against the Cavaliers, which equates to 47.6 percent. The most damaging third down play came late in the fourth quarter. The Golden Eagles faced third and 23 from their own 41-yard line. They faked a play to the right and threw a horizontal pass to the left to Tracy Lampley, who then scurried 41 yards for a first down that all but crushed any remaining hope of a Virginia comeback. During that play, a handful of Cavaliers defenders missed an opportunity to tackle Lampley, so add that seemingly perpetual struggle to the list, as well.
2) Short run game. When it came to picking up short yardage Saturday, Virginia had sporadic success. The Cavaliers had 16 opportunities in which they needed two yards or less to pick up a first down and converted on eight of them. I forgot to ask Offensive Coordinator Bill Lazor about it after the game, but I’m guessing he’d prefer – and expect – a higher success rate in those situations than 50 percent. Virginia ran the ball on six of those eight failed attempts and needed just one yard on five of those six carries. With a talented offensive line and several capable running backs, the Cavaliers simply have to be better than that, particularly while the passing game is in a bit of flux.
3) Special teams struggles. Virginia’s fortunes in the first half seemingly turned in the span of one play. The offense had moved efficiently, and the defense had settled down after broken zone coverage allowed a touchdown pass on Southern Miss’s opening drive. The Cavaliers, ahead by six at the time, had forced the Golden Eagles to punt out of their own end zone to start the second quarter. Or at least, that’s what Virginia thought Southern Miss was going to do. Instead, the Golden Eagles ran a fake punt and gained 31 yards for a first down. They scored a touchdown 10 plays later. The Cavaliers’ defense forced Southern Miss to punt on its following offensive series, and referees ruled the Golden Eagles downed the ball at the U-Va. 1-yard line, even though a Southern Miss player appeared to roll into the end zone as he touched the ball. The call on the field was reviewed and confirmed. Also, after Virginia scored in the fourth quarter to cut its deficit to three, Chris Hinkebein sent his kickoff out of bounds, a penalty that enabled Southern Miss to start at its own 40-yard line.