There is no way to sugarcoat it—the Cavaliers (2-3, 0-1 in the ACC) head into Wallace Wade Stadium this weekend with their backs against the wall.
Virginia began its season with two encouraging home wins against Richmond and Penn State. Unfortunately for Wahoo nation, the Cavaliers have not been able to translate their opening momentum into success on the road.
Week three’s trip to Atlanta ended in a humbling 36-point trouncing at the hand of Georgia Tech, followed by another road loss to Texas Christian which was not much closer. The team returned to Charlottesville Saturday, hoping to prevent an undefeated Louisiana Tech offense from scoring more than 50 points for a fourth consecutive game.
Virginia held the Bulldogs to a modest 44 points, but the shaky Cavalier offense could not keep pace. Starting quarterback Michael Rocco threw three interceptions in the 44-38 loss, and Virginia was penalized 16 times—just one short of the school’s all-time record. If the Cavaliers hope to right the ship this Saturday against Duke, the troubling accumulation of turnovers and infractions must be addressed.
Quarterback struggles have played a major part in Virginia’s offensive woes. Rocco’s play has been inconsistent at best, though the Cavaliers may have found a silver lining in backup Phil Sims. Sims, an Alabama transfer, has thrown for five touchdowns this season without a single interception.
In his press conference Monday, head coach Mike London was initially somewhat elusive regarding who would get the nod against Duke.
“It’s not about one individual—it’s about the team and about who gives us the best chance,” London said. “And that decision will be made very soon.”
During his radio show just hours later, London was more candid about Sims’ getting snaps, though a leg injury could hold him back and give Rocco another chance.
“If he’s 100 percent ready to go, [Sims] will get snaps with the first unit,” London said.
Sims dismissed concerns regarding his leg injury in a conference call Wednesday afternoon.
“It’s early in the week, but I really haven’t had any trouble with it,” he said. “It hasn’t kept me out of any practices, any reps, or anything like that.”
Sims, who began taking reps with the first-team offense Tuesday morning, has not started a game since his senior season at Oscar Smith High School.
“It does help that you know you’re going to be the guy that’s going out there to take the first snap, but really that’s all you’re guaranteed,” Sims said.
This will be the first time in 18 months that Rocco will not be starting for the Virginia, but Sims praised his teammate for handling the situation professionally. “He supports me. I supported him. We’re teammates, and we’re going to help each other until the end of this,” Sims said.
Regardless of who is under center, Virginia can also look to its potent receiver corps for big play potential, led by Darius Jennings and Jake McGee, who have combined for 521 yards and four touchdowns on the season.
“I think the receiver group is a positive group for us, is a play-making group for us, but we have to utilize their abilities and skills,” London said. “We have a lot of respect for our opponent in Duke, but it’s probably more about us and getting the ball to those individuals that can make plays happen for us, and it was good to see some explosive plays occur for those guys.”
Beyond the passing attack, Duke’s defense will have to be wary of the Cavaliers’ two-pronged rushing game led by Kevin Parks and Perry Jones.
It will take improved focus on both sides of the ball for the Wahoos to secure a win Saturday. According to Sims, they have both the talent and hindsight necessary to do so.
“I feel we have very good talent on this team,” Sims said. “We’ve shot ourselves in the foot sometimes with penalties and things like that. We can’t afford to do that. That’s not how you win football games.”