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Change we can believe in

First of all, let me be clear. I never wanted this to happen.

I was the one defending Virginia quarterback Michael Rocco through all the chants and signs proclaiming “We Want Sims!”

I consistently asserted that Rocco should remain the starter ahead of backup Phillip Sims even after consecutive games in which Rocco threw two interceptions and failed to reach 150 yards through the air.

“He’s getting no help from the defense,” I said. This was true.

Through five games, the Cavalier defense has forced just one turnover and has been gashed for more than 400 yards of offense per contest. In case anyone missed it, Louisiana Tech scored 34 — yes, 34 — unanswered points in Saturday’s game, flipping the script from a 24-10 Virginia lead to a seemingly insurmountable 44-24 deficit.

Such defensive performances undoubtedly caused Rocco to force throws, contributing to his eight interceptions against just six touchdowns this season.

“He’s getting no help from the running game,” I said. This was also true.

Virginia’s ground attack, touted before the season as the key to Virginia’s football resurgence, is averaging 124.6 yards per game, down 40 yards per game from last season and good for 99th in the Football Bowl Subdivision — out of 124 teams.

But I’m done.

The Cavaliers sit at 2-3 after three straight defeats, and I am officially withdrawing my vote of confidence in Rocco.

To explain why I supported Rocco in the first place — and why I’m done doing so now — I have to rewind a season and look at the team I grew up supporting: LSU.

LSU’s senior quarterback Jordan Jefferson was suspended for the opening of the team’s 2011 campaign. Fellow senior Jarrett Lee replaced Jefferson in the lineup and performed solidly if not spectacularly. Lee threw for just 156 yards per game through the first eight tilts. But on a team whose offensive focus was heavily run-based, Lee’s game-management skills impressed me most as he notched 13 touchdowns to just one interception.

Then, in the Tiger’s regular-season slugfest with Alabama, Lee was pulled at halftime after tossing two interceptions on seven pass attempts, and Jefferson was reinserted into the lineup. He led LSU to a 9-6 win, and LSU completed an undefeated regular season. Jefferson took the helm for the remaining three regular-season contests and the SEC Championship Game. Lee didn’t take another meaningful snap all season.

In the national championship rematch against the Crimson Tide, however, Jefferson struggled mightily, achieving a pitiful 3.1 yards-per-pass attempt and taking four sacks. If ever there was a time for a quarterback switch, that game was it. But LSU coach Les Miles couldn’t return to Lee — not after shattering the senior’s confidence by yanking him after one bad outing. Jefferson finished out the ugly 21-0 defeat to watch Alabama hoist the crystal football as national champions.

The 2011 LSU team is a cautionary tale for any team with a quarterback controversy. Before you pull one starter, you must consider its repercussions — you cannot go back to that quarterback again; it is a binding, season-long decision. Being benched is a confidence killer, and that player might not be able to perform under pressure anymore. Switching quarterbacks is a delicate operation that should not be performed rashly or without cause.

This brings us back to Virginia football, 2012.

The clamor for Sims to assume starting duties began the minute he transferred from Alabama to Virginia. The Sims contingent quieted, but only a bit, after Rocco turned in solid performances against Richmond and Penn State.

Then Virginia started losing, and the shouts of “We want Sims!” magnified. Rocco threw two picks against Georgia Tech, and the cries grew louder when Sims came in and threw two garbage-time touchdowns. Rocco’s performance was clearly hurt by a defense that gave up 56 points and nearly 600 yards of offense; he had to force throws to keep Virginia in the game.

Rocco threw two more picks against TCU, and Sims once again tossed a late-game touchdown meaningful mainly as the only points Virginia scored. Still, that game was played on the road against a top-20 team that jumped to an early lead on the defense, again obliging Rocco and company to play catch-up.

But the Louisiana Tech game was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Rocco tossed three interceptions. One resulted from a wide receiver’s miscue, but on another Rocco threw the ball directly to a Bulldog defender, who returned it for a touchdown to cap off Louisiana Tech’s 21-0 third quarter. Rocco’s poor decision-making overshadowed his 278 yards and two touchdowns, putting Virginia in an almost inescapable hole.

London’s decision was clear before Sims entered and nearly led the Cavaliers to a comeback win. Sims must be the starter.

The LSU situation showed that a quarterback switch should only be undertaken with legitimate cause. We finally have that cause. Sims has proven he is a better performer under pressure than Rocco, and Rocco has committed a stretch of consistently disappointing play.

LSU made a poor decision with Lee and Jefferson because it felt pressure to make a change for the present. They were an undefeated team vying for a berth in the national title game. In case you were still holding out hope, I assure you 2012 Virginia is in no such situation. Finishing this season even with a bowl berth might prove to be a struggle for the team this year.

But where 2011 LSU rushed into a decision made with only the present in mind, 2012 Virginia has a chance to make a decision not just for this year, but next year.

Sims obviously was intended to be the starter for Virginia at some point, and “some point” should start this Saturday at Duke. If he is the future of Virginia football, why not let the future start now?


Published October 1, 2012 in Sports







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