Cancel the script
When Virginia junior quarterback Michael Rocco committed an intentional grounding penalty in what the referees loosely deemed the “end zone” with 4:19 remaining in Saturday’s home tilt against Miami, you could almost hear 45,870 exasperated fans thinking to themselves, “Not again!”
After the Cavaliers pilfered a win from Penn State Sept. 8, their three ensuing home losses roughly followed the same script: flashes of sublimity from coach Mike London’s squad intertwined with moments of comical ineptitude, capped by some inane, fatal, self-inflicted error.
The appeal and potency of sport, however, arise from its ability to illuminate and inspire us even when we think we know the script inside-and-out. And sure enough, Rocco and company pulled a fast one on us. The much-maligned signal-caller bookended his finest day as a college quarterback with a stunning 10-yard lob to wunderkind sophomore tight end Jake McGee, who miraculously stuck a foot in the back of the end zone with six seconds remaining to clinch a memorable 41-40 Virginia victory. Considering the win preserves the Cavaliers’ chances of bowl qualification and unshackles them from the morbid formula that had defined their preceding home games, forgive London for his exuberant sentimentality post-game.
“I’d just like to say what a blessing that is to see something like that come to fruition at the end of the game, where there have been a couple of times we’ve come on the short end of that: muffed punt, or interception or something,” London said. “To see the players and coaches be really resilient, I’m just so elated, so happy for these guys.”
The obvious explanation for why this game turned out differently from the previous three home defeats is of Lou Holtz-ian simplicity: Virginia is simply playing better football than they were three weeks ago. On the heels of a 33-6 victory at N.C. State as shocking as it was impressive, the Cavaliers executed one of their best conceived gameplans of the year, finishing with 482 total yards of offense and just one turnover on an admittedly silly pass from senior running back Perry Jones.
“It was a big time win, two weeks in a row, guys stepped up and made plays when their names were called,” sophomore quarterback Phillip Sims said. “We expected it from ourselves all season long and I think we are starting to come together.”
That explanation, though, inadequately accounts for how a team that reacted with the poise of “The Boom Goes the Dynamite” guy’s shy cousin in highly similar situations less than a month ago thrived under pressure Saturday. What truly swung the balance in the Cavaliers’ favor Saturday was their decisiveness in the face of adversity. Ultimately, the coaches and players refused to follow the standard, defeatist script.
Ironically, the most striking example of Virginia’s resolution involves the passing game’s play, an emblem this season of the team’s crippling indecision. The Rocco-Sims dueling banjos experiment has largely succeeded because of offensive coordinator Bill Lazor’s ability these past two weeks to employ the two quarterbacks in ways that highlight their respective skills. Saturday, Rocco gouged Miami’s soft zones with slant routes and posts, finding a groove on two first quarter scoring drives that supplied him with the moxie to make decisive, assertive plays when he had to improvise on the 16-play, 87-yard game-winning drive. Sims, although less effective than Rocco, moved the ball by trusting in the screen game — only yielding to his gunslinger instincts on a few occasions. Throw in the suddenly dangerous receiving corps’ best performance of the year, highlighted by sophomore Dominique Terrell’s 9 catches for 127 yards, and a once unreliable offensive unit now exudes confidence and ability.
“I think we had a great gameplan coming into this week and we just felt confident in executing it,” Sims said. “Both of us did a great job in the first half and throughout the game getting the ball to different guys and making plays when we had to.”
Meanwhile, if the passing game was mimicking a high-octane Big 12 offense in the first half, the defense surely resembled a paper-thin Big 12 defense. For much of the first three quarters, the relentless athleticism of scintillating freshman phenom Duke Johnson — who finished with 364 all-purpose yards and about 20 “Reggie Bush at USC” moments — and the steady hand of quarterback Stephen Morris reduced the Virginia defense to a grasping, backpedaling mess. In the fourth quarter, nevertheless, the defenders who appeared so slow and overwhelmed for the game’s first 45 minutes single-handedly preserved the game for Virginia with two monumental stops. After struggling to contain Miami’s incendiary skill players all day, the Cavaliers refused to let 38 offensive points discourage them from doing their jobs.
“We made some stops when we needed to do it,” senior linebacker Steve Greer said. “We have been talking about that all season, making an identity for our defense.”
Notably, both the offense and defense excelled after the safety — the play that, according to the script, was supposed to spell doom and gloom. The defense’s huge stop thereafter and the offense’s dramatic, nerve-shattering drive resulted from an all-important choice: the choice to keep playing even under the imminent threat of failure and ridicule. It’s not a matter of effort — the Cavaliers have never lacked for that this season — but of steadfastly resolving, after every mishap or calamity, to press on. And though this decision never guarantees victory on the field, it sets the groundwork for the trust and confidence that define true champions in all walks of life.
“All along we kind of knew deep down that the game was in our hands,” sophomore receiver Darius Jennings said. “We had to take control of our own destiny. Once we got the ball with two minutes left, we knew we were going to go down there and come out with a win.”
Perhaps, subconsciously, that’s why thousands of fans streamed onto the field to celebrate a win against a .500 team. On some level, maybe Virginia fans recognized the team’s choice to endure — even if they didn’t recognize the script.