Virginia drops third straight, falls to Louisiana Tech, 44-38
Bulldogs capitalize on Cavaliers' 30-minute scoring drought with 34-0 run
The Virginia offense has ranged from passable to calamitous throughout a rocky 2012 season. They have shown the type of big-play potential that was supposed to take the veteran-laden unit to the next level. But they have also shown a baffling propensity for crippling penalties and avoidable turnovers, all of which had contributed to consecutive blowout losses before Saturday’s showdown against Louisiana Tech.
Saturday’s 44-38 loss to Louisiana Tech featured the best and worst of an offense that has been too erratic to give the team’s inexperienced defense a fighting chance. Louisiana Tech was the only team in the nation to score 50 or more points in each of its games prior to this weekend, and with one of the top offenses in the country visiting Charlottesville the Cavalier attack needed to be sharp throughout. Instead, the offense alternated between eye-opening stretches of execution and head-scratching periods of impotence.
“We gained a lot of yards and scored a lot of points, but the key is self-inflicted wounds,” offensive coordinator Bill Lazor said. “The disappointing thing is that we hurt ourselves, and not taking credit away from Louisiana Tech because I thought they played hard, but the penalties and turnovers really hurt today.”
Virginia had four plays of 36 yards or more in the first half to help alleviate the offense’s primary concerns: a brewing quarterback controversy and an inexplicable lack of production by the team’s talented running backs. But two disastrous second-half interceptions by junior quarterback Michael Rocco during a 30-minute scoreless stretch ensured that those issues will not be going away any time soon.
In the early stages of the game, Virginia’s offense was dominant. Rocco completed nine of his first 10 passes for 225 yards and the team’s running backs found new ways to contribute. On the team’s second drive, Rocco completed a 43-yard pass to sophomore wide receiver E.J. Scott on the first play and senior running back Perry Jones threw for his second career touchdown pass in as many attempts on a 36-yard strike to junior wide receiver Tim Smith on the second play. Less than one minute into the second quarter, sophomore running back Khalek Shepherd snuck out of the backfield uncovered and took a short pass for a 78-yard touchdown to stake Virginia to a commanding 21-10 lead.
Facing a Louisiana Tech team that had averaged 54.7 points per game and posted seven consecutive road wins, Virginia was aware that no lead was safe.
“We knew that coming into the game that [the Louisiana Tech offense was] going to play us hard and score as many points as they could,” Jones said. “From the offensive side of the ball, we wanted to come in with the same mindset.”
With a chance to extend the lead to 18 on third-and-three from the Bulldog seven-yard line, sophomore running back Kevin Parks was whistled for a 15-yard personal foul penalty — one of 16 penalties for 145 yards called against Virginia — and the Cavaliers were forced to settle for a 35-yard field goal by sophomore place kicker Drew Jarrett to extend the lead to 24-10.
“You’ve got to be smart — we talked about being physical, but also playing with poise,” coach Mike London said. “You can’t have  penalties. We had [four] last week, and it’s amazing that the number is where it is. I’ll take responsibility for that.”
That missed opportunity with 7:35 remaining in the second quarter was the team’s last score until the 6:56 mark of the fourth quarter. While the Bulldog offense got comfortable, the clicking Cavalier unit disappeared.
Rocco’s halftime stats — 265 yards passing with two touchdowns and one interception — did not portend the breakout performance he sorely needed. Instead, the many near-interceptions and dangerous decisions that went largely unpunished in the opening 30 minutes came back to bite him in one of the worst stretches of his collegiate career.
Rocco’s first interception came on a catchable pass that sophomore wide receiver Dominique Terrell mishandled midway through the second quarter. The next two turnovers, however, were entirely on the quarterback. In a span of three plays, Rocco came apart, throwing interceptions to redshirt senior cornerback Dave Clark and redshirt senior linebacker Chip Hester, resulting in two Louisiana Tech touchdowns amid a 34-0 run for the Bulldogs.
“We had a lot of yards, a lot of penalties and a couple turnovers,” Rocco said. “We prepared the way we wanted to, but things happen that you regret.”
The loudest applause from the 42,027 in attendance during the offense’s punchless 30 minute stretch came when the PA announcer reported that sophomore quarterback Phillip Sims would replace Rocco with six minutes remaining in the third quarter and the Cavaliers trailing 41-24. Whether the fans were eager to witness Sims’ potential or just happy to see Rocco depart, Sims gave them ample reason to cheer while leading a near-astonishing comeback attempt.
Sims completed 10-of-17 passes for 166 yards and two touchdowns while chipping away at the team’s deficit, which had risen to 20 early in the fourth quarter. Sims’ flawless lob to freshman wide receiver Adrian Gamble in the back of the end zone for a 24-yard touchdown with 2:08 remaining brought Virginia within six points.
With all three timeouts remaining, London elected to kick the ball deep and trust his defense to make a stand. Virginia made one of the most important defensive stops of the season on a third-and-one run, stuffing Louisiana Tech freshman running back Kenneth Dixon for no gain to bring up fourth down. Following a Bulldog timeout, the Cavalier special teams unit entered to return the would-be punt, but Louisiana Tech ran its offense back onto the field. In the confusion, Virginia was whistled for a controversial illegal substitution penalty for having 12 men on the field, giving the Bulldogs a first down and enabling them to ice the game with three kneel-downs.
Virginia’s 480 passing yards shattered the previous school record of 417 set in 2010 in a 55-48 loss to Duke. The Cavaliers will look to avoid their first four-game losing streak since 2010 — a stretch beginning with that record-breaking loss against the Blue Devils — when they travel to Durham, North Carolina to face Duke (4-1, 1-0 ACC) Oct. 6.