Five days later, on a night of the week in which its opponent never had lost at home, the Cavaliers offense displayed a firmer grasp of its potential — and of its current substance — than it had at any previous point this season against a Football Bowl Subdivision foe.
Virginia had been potent with the ball at times this season, creative at others. But not until defeating Miami, 28-21, in front of a national television audience Thursday night did the Cavaliers demonstrate the offensive consistency they will need to qualify for postseason play. With the win over the Hurricanes, Virginia (5-3, 2-2 ACC) stands one victory from becoming bowl eligible for the first time since 2007.
“Sometimes as an offense or as a team, when you come off a performance that you weren’t happy with, it’s fun to have a short week,” Virginia offensive coordinator Bill Lazor said before correcting himself. “Not fun. It’s better to have a short week to get it over with and move on to another game.”
The Cavaliers blended ingenuity and common sense into a combination Miami (4-4, 2-3) struggled to handle. Virginia tailback Perry Jones caught a 78-yard touchdown pass, threw a 37-yard touchdown pass and tallied a long run of 37 yards. All told, he played a role in 182 of the Cavaliers’ 470 total yards.
Virginia ran the ball 42 times for 207 yards against one of the ACC’s most porous run defenses and successfully mixed in a number of short passes.
“I think when you have an opportunity to run the ball like that and run it with authority that you always want to try to define what your identity is, and sometimes through game-planning you look at things like, ‘Hey, it looks like a pass might work here,’ or whatever,” London said. “But to get back to the true identity of who you are, even if there is a down safety or they’re stunting off the edge, the mentality sometimes is you’ve just got to block it and the back’s got to make one guy miss to keep that type of mentality going. . . .
“I was pleased that when it counted, when it mattered, the ground game got us going.”
And though the Virginia defense had trouble defending the pass all night — Miami receiver Tommy Streeter tallied seven receptions for 176 yards and two touchdowns — the Cavaliers were stingy when it mattered most.
On fourth and two from the Virginia 15-yard line with just more than two minutes remaining in the game, linebacker LaRoy Reynolds stopped Hurricanes tailback Mike James on a blitz in which the Miami fullback missed his block. Reynolds made the tackle for a loss of one, which turned the ball over on downs.
“I just shot the gap as soon as the ball was snapped, and it was a great play by the defensive line crashing down,” Reynolds said. “I thought we might have to go back on the field. And we did.”
Indeed, the Hurricanes got one more chance to score, but on what proved to be the final play of the game, a horde of Cavaliers defenders stopped tailback Eduardo Clements after a 23-yard pass reception at the Virginia 9-yard line.
“It was a lot longer play than we would have liked,” linebacker Steve Greer said, “but I liked how it ended.”
Sophomore quarterback Michael Rocco enjoyed how the night ended, too. Behind center for all but one play Thursday, the Virginia offense operated with a fluidity it seldom has displayed for prolonged stretches this season.
On third and four from the Virginia 47-yard line in the first quarter, Rocco fired a bubble screen pass to his right to freshman wideout Darius Jennings. Thanks to key blocks from tight end Colter Phillips and right tackle Morgan Moses, Jennings suddenly had space to show off the dynamic speed London has raved about since the outset of training camp. He sprinted into the end zone for his first career touchdown.
Rocco completed 11 of 20 passes for 226 yards and, for the first time this season, only briefly was interrupted by his backup, freshman David Watford. After throwing three interceptions during Saturday’s 28-14 loss to N.C. State, Watford — who had led the Cavaliers in at least one series per half over the past month — undertook a reduced role.
London announced this week that for the near future, Watford would be inserted into games for specific plays, not full possessions. The move was intended to relieve some stress from Watford, provide a confidence boost to Rocco and enable the offense to maintain the momentum it generated early in games. Watford logged one play in the first half, a quarterback draw out of the shotgun formation that gained four yards.
The alteration to the quarterback rotation plan had its desired effects. Virginia gained 252 yards in the first half Thursday, three more than it gained during the entirety of the loss to N.C. State.
With just more than four minutes remaining in the second quarter, Rocco pitched the ball to Jones, who ran a few steps to his right — just enough to draw the cornerbacks in to defend the run — before launching a pass that traveled 45 yards in the air to wideout Tim Smith in the end zone.
The Cavaliers had practiced that play for weeks, Lazor said. Two of the three times they practiced it in the past four days, Jones was the passer. The third time was after Jones had left practice early to attend a class. Lazor tried the play with a different running back throwing the ball and, according to Jones, it didn’t go so well.
“I’m just glad [Lazor] called it at the right time,” Jones said.
The 37-yard touchdown pass provided Virginia a 17-0 first-half lead that even the most ardent Cavaliers fan would have had a hard time predicting.
Even tougher to anticipate was that Virginia’s offensive success would continue into the second half. On third and two from the Virginia 22-yard line early in the fourth quarter, Jones caught a short pass and burst into the open field for a 78-yard touchdown play.
“Whenever you’re able to play in a full game, you’re going to have ups and downs in every game,” Rocco said. “But we came out and we had a balanced attack and our coaches did a great job of putting a game plan together to attack them, their weaknesses. And we did. We scored points when we needed to.”