CHARLOTTESVILLE — The first question Virginia Coach Mike London faced during his weekly news conference with reporters Monday was about his uncertain quarterback situation.
Junior Michael Rocco has started 17 straight games for the Cavaliers, but the offense has struggled so far this season. With Alabama transfer Phillip Sims waiting in the wings, many fans believe the time is right for a change.
But while London indicated Rocco would be under center when Virginia’s offense takes the field Saturday, his first answer involved all the players surrounding his signal-callers.
“I think everyone on our team understands that . . . you have to perform, not just the quarterbacks; the wide receivers, the linemen, and that’s something that we are taking another hard look at,” London said.
Virginia entered this season hopeful that its offense would shoulder a heavier load, especially early on as the Cavaliers’ defense figured out how to replace seven starters.
On paper, it made sense. With a returning starting quarterback, a group of dynamic tailbacks, two NFL-caliber tackles and more speed outside at wide receiver, offensive coordinator Bill Lazor said in the preseason this team had more weapons than London’s first two seasons in Charlottesville.
On the field, it hasn’t worked out that way yet. In Virginia’s three games against Football Bowl Subdivision teams this year, it is averaging just 14.7 points and 315 yards per contest. For the season, the Cavaliers rank No. 100 in the country in scoring offense and No. 88 in total offense.
Turnovers have played a large role in those issues. The Cavaliers have committed 10 the past three weeks, and only two teams in the country have a worse turnover margin this year.
On Saturday, after an 11-for-28 performance at TCU, Rocco said that he believes the offense is close to hitting its stride other than those miscues.
“We just stubbed our toe on things that we did, not really things that they forced us to do,” he said.
Whatever quarterback is in the game hasn’t been getting much help, either.
The interior of Virginia’s offensive line has been unable to consistently hold back defensive tackles, and with teams loading up to stop the run, senior Perry Jones and sophomore Kevin Parks have mostly been held at bay.
London said the team would look to get Jones involved, and he just missed on a few passes to him against TCU. But Louisiana Tech Coach Sonny Dykes has already said he plans to make Virginia throw the ball Saturday when the Bulldogs come to Charlottesville.
Even last week, when the Cavaliers gained 164 yards on the ground, they still averaged just three yards per carry outside of one long run by Parks and a quarterback scramble by Rocco on a broken play. As Lazor put it, “The reality is the good performances kind of get wiped out when you don’t score any points.”
A replacement for Rocco’s go-to receiver last year, Kris Burd, has also yet to appear. Sophomores Darius Jennings and Dominique Terrell have shown flashes of talent, but Jennings said “we’ve just got to put it all together at once” when asked about the connection between the receiving corps and Rocco.
London was counting on junior Tim Smith to assume some of Burd’s responsibilities, but Smith has been slowed by injury. Smith missed Virginia’s loss to Georgia Tech and was limited against TCU, but London said he has looked healthy in practice this week. He has just seven catches for 108 yards this season.
“Right now it’s kind of receiver by committee because of the youth that we have and we’re relying on a healthy Tim Smith, who has stretched the field in the past and proven he can make catches,” he added.
The problem is, with a 2-2 record and aspirations of making a second straight bowl game, the Cavaliers can’t wait much longer. Louisiana Tech has scored more than 50 points in every game this season, including a 52-24 win at Illinois last weekend.
“I’d like to be able to play really good defense against them, but the reality of it is they’ve been running this offense for a while,” London said. “If we do what we’re capable of doing, there’s enough to put points on the board.”