CHARLOTTESVILLE — When Virginia sophomore quarterback Michael Rocco trotted off the field following a 14-play, 72-yard drive early in the second quarter Saturday — one that he capped with a six-yard touchdown pass to freshman tailback Clifton Richardson — the Cavaliers were still riding the wave of momentum they had created a week earlier by defeating then-No. 12 Georgia Tech.
But by the time Rocco trudged into the media room at Scott Stadium following Virginia’s 28-14 loss to North Carolina State, all of that momentum had washed away.
Virginia (4-3, 1-2 ACC) now needs to win two of its final five games to become bowl eligible for the first time since 2007. After Thursday night’s game at Miami, Virginia faces Maryland, Duke, Florida State and Virginia Tech.
“Obviously, there were a lot of disappointments that were out there today that we have to shore up, because our schedule doesn’t get any easier,” Coach Mike London said.
Rocco was replaced by freshman quarterback David Watford two series after the touchdown drive. That was the coaching staff’s pre-ordained plan: Make sure Watford sees playing time in the first half, no matter what. It has been that way for the past month.
And, in what has become a familiar scene to those who follow this team regularly, the Cavaliers’ offense sputtered in the immediate aftermath of the switch.
Watford threw an interception on his second snap. The Wolfpack (4-3, 1-2 ACC) scored on a 33-yard touchdown pass on the first play of its ensuing drive. Rocco returned for Virginia’s fifth possession and threw 10 straight incompletions.
“Just stuck to the plan,” Virginia offensive coordinator Bill Lazor said when asked whether he was hesitant to pull Rocco following that successful third series.
“It’s not easy,” said Rocco, who completed 7 of 19 passes for 36 yards. “It’s not an easy thing to do, but you’ve just got to be a good teammate and still be the leader of the offense from the sideline, just encourage [Watford] to do a good job out there.”
A Cavaliers offense that entered the day averaging 433.5 yards per game tallied 249 against an injury-depleted N.C. State defense that Watford said was “just more prepared than we were.”
The Cavaliers have demonstrated an ability to use the run to set up play-action passes, but that ability wasn’t present Saturday. After averaging five yards per carry in the first half, the Cavaliers opted to run the ball five fewer times in the second half. Virginia trailed by seven at halftime.
When asked whether he felt the offense got away from the run in the second half, Lazor said, “Only when I felt we had to.”
Meantime, both quarterbacks struggled to find rhythm in the passing game. Watford replaced Rocco for good midway through the third quarter. He threw a 60-yard touchdown pass to wideout Tim Smith late in the third quarter. But he also threw three interceptions — one of which was returned for a touchdown — and completed 4 of 16 passes.
“He’s got a ways to [go to] try to improve his game,” London said. “But I think in the end, [Lazor] and the rest of the staff just felt that at that point if they were going to continue to blitz like that that maybe from an escapability standpoint, you know, being able to use your feet, that he may have been the answer.”
On two fourth-and-three plays in the fourth quarter, Lazor called for Watford to pass. One fell incomplete; the other was intercepted. Virginia is 8 for 15 on fourth-down conversion attempts this season, and six of those seven missed conversions were the result of incomplete passes thrown by Watford.
“I want to throw the ball, run the play and execute it,” Watford said. “But if the play isn’t open, that’s what you want to do is just take off. Their defensive linemen were slanting and stunting, so they kind of threw us off. We weren’t really expecting that. They were kind of in my face early, and even when I did try to run, somebody was always playing back. They were always on me fast.”