Cavaliers aim to halt slide against Wake Forest
Coaches say improved passing game, takeaways needed to earn pivotal victory vs. Demon Deacons
The Virginia football team welcomes Wake Forest to Scott Stadium Saturday for a third straight ACC matchup. The Cavaliers (2-5, 0-3 ACC) looks to put an end to a five-game skid that has seen them plummet to the basement of the Coastal Division. Following Saturday’s game against the Demon Deacons (3-3, 1-3 ACC), Virginia will benefit from a bye week as the squad tries to salvage the second half of its season.
A victory against Wake Forest would be Virginia’s first win against an ACC opponent. Only the Cavaliers and Boston College remain winless in conference play.
Last Saturday’s 27-20 loss to Maryland proved the Cavaliers still have multiple issues to sort out if they want to reverse their fortunes. Among the struggling players was sophomore quarterback Phillip Sims, who connected on just 13-of-28 passes for one touchdown and one interception in his second straight erratic performance since taking over as starter against Duke.
For the team’s final two drives, coach Mike London pulled Sims in favor of junior quarterback Michael Rocco, who promptly marched the Cavaliers down the field for the touchdown that pulled them within seven. But Rocco could not complete the comeback as the ensuing Virginia possession fizzled out.
Rocco’s efforts against Maryland highlighted his desire to reclaim the starting spot, but for now coach London’s trust resides with Sims — in spite of the Alabama transfer’s clear unease in his first two starts.
“I know Phillip is a great player, but that was his second game starting as a quarterback,” London said. “He understands there are some things he’s got to work on better.”
Sims does understand he has not performed at maximum capacity in the last two games.
“I know what I’m capable of doing,” he said. “The last couple of weeks are not me.”
Sims could benefit from targeting sophomore tight end Jake McGee. The 6-foot-5-inch former high school quarterback already has a string of highlight reel quality catches this year, and his athleticism makes him deadly in the red zone, as evidenced by his impressive 24-yard touchdown snag from Rocco in the fourth quarter against the Terrapins. Against Maryland, Sims completed no passes to McGee and targeted the tight end only twice.
“He’s definitely an option because of his height, because of his athleticism,” London said. “Throw the ball up in the red zone, just like back in his high school going for a rebound.”
Saturday could be the best chance the Virginia coaching staff has to try a more aggressive passing game. The Demon Deacons allow opposing quarterbacks to complete more than 60 percent of their passes and will be without redshirt junior safety Duran Lowe, who is currently suspended following his arrest last week for marijuana possession with intent to distribute.
On one of the few bright notes from the Maryland contest, the Cavalier defense forced a rare turnover when senior defensive tackle Will Hill recovered Perry Hills’ fumble in the third quarter. Defensive coordinator Jim Reid hopes his young players can continue to create turnovers against Wake Forest as the unit obtains invaluable experience with every passing week.
“We’re starting four sophomores in the secondary,” Reid said. “We’re getting our hands on a couple of balls, we’re getting a little closer, but what you have to continue to focus on is how to keep these young guys up.”
The Cavaliers also hope to improve upon the poor special teams play that doomed them last week. Maryland’s Stefon Diggs returned the opening kickoff 100 yards giving the Terrapins the early lead before junior placekicker Drew Jarrett’s 31-yard field goal attempt was blocked. Redshirt freshman Ian Frye, who has served as the team’s kickoff specialist all season, replaced Jarrett as the field goal kicker for the remainder of the game and went 2-for-2.
London blamed the special teams’ struggles on execution rather than strategy. “Schemes and things like that are not as much the issue as the people that are executing them,” London said. “You got to make better decisions, because if not, as you see, the first [kickoff return] led to a touchdown.”
After the week off, Virginia will travel to N.C. State. The squad will then face Miami Nov. 10 and North Carolina Nov. 15 at home. The Cavaliers finish the season with the annual Commonwealth Cup tussle against Virginia Tech.
Despite the daunting schedule, McGee and his teammates sense a drastic turnaround on the horizon.
“We haven’t been playing as well as we should have,” McGee said. “But I still feel it’s close to us turning it around and making something out of this season.”
Kickoff is scheduled for 12:30 p.m. Saturday.