McGee, Rocco clutch performance fuels potentially bowl-saving win
Junior quarterback Michael Rocco turned to sophomore tight end Jake McGee in Virginia’s final huddle of a back-and-forth affair against Miami Saturday and gave his best friend on the team a simple message.
“Jake, this one is coming to you,” he said. “Go catch it.”
The Cavaliers’ (4-6, 2-4 ACC) bowl hopes hung in the balance while Rocco’s pass to McGee sailed toward the back of the end zone. McGee leaped toward the ball, contorted his body backward and tapped one foot inside the goal line before a pair of defenders pushed him out of the back of the end zone.
McGee’s spectacular catch helped Virginia erase a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit against the Hurricanes (5-5, 4-3 ACC) en route to a 41-40 victory. The win not only prevented Coastal Division-leading Miami from clinching a bowl berth in Charlottesville, but also brought the Cavaliers within two wins of securing a bowl bid that once seemed out of reach.
“I knew that these players don’t quit,” coach Mike London said. “I knew that you can go back and look and you’re a play or two away. Sometimes you can’t measure desire and you can’t measure heart.”
Virginia’s last victory at Scott Stadium had come Sept. 8 against Penn State when Rocco connected with McGee for two miraculous completions that led Virginia to a come-from-behind win. The pair repeated the feat Saturday with a season-saving play.
Rocco directed a 16-play, 87-yard go-ahead drive during the final 2:38, twice converting fourth-and-seven opportunities to extend the drive. Rocco’s second fourth-down pass of the drive missed sophomore wide receiver Dominique Terrell and appeared to end the game and the Cavaliers’ postseason hopes. But Miami sophomore defensive back Thomas Finnie was whistled for holding on Terrell, giving Virginia an automatic first down.
Moments later, Rocco hit junior wide receiver Tim Smith for eight yards to bring the ball to the Hurricane 12-yard line. With the clock ticking down on Virginia’s season, Rocco snuck across the first-down marker to move the chains. Two plays later, Rocco found McGee for the game-winning touchdown.
“Everyone knew that this was it,” McGee said. “It was our last drive, so [Rocco] kept us focused and told us that we got this.”
Rocco made his first start since ceding his starting job to sophomore Phillip Sims following Virginia’s 44-38 loss to Louisiana Tech Sept. 29. Rocco and the Cavalier offense shredded the ACC’s last-ranked unit in total defense early, scoring touchdowns in four-of-five drives to open the game. Virginia’s 41 points was the most the team has scored in a conference game since 2007.
Rocco hit sophomore wide receivers Miles Gooch and Darius Jennings for first-quarter touchdowns. Sims, the other half of the Cavaliers’ quarterback rotation, capped his first drive with a 6-yard touchdown run to give Virginia 21 points in the first quarter, the team’s most points in any quarter since 2008.
The Hurricanes answered each Virginia touchdown with a score of their own, tallying three touchdowns on their first two drives. Electric freshman running back Duke Johnson returned a kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown and threw for a touchdown pass in the first quarter to keep pace with the Cavaliers. Johnson totaled 368 all-purpose yards, the fourth highest total in ACC history.
Virginia took a 28-24 lead before the half on a three-yard touchdown run by sophomore running back Kevin Parks. Miami answered in the second-half with 14 unanswered points, taking a 10-point lead on a 35-yard pass from junior quarterback Stephen Morris to sophomore wide receiver Phillip Dorsett with 11:38 remaining in the game.
Down the stretch, the Cavaliers’ quarterback rotation became a one man show. Offensive coordinator Bill Lazor left Rocco in the game for the team’s final three drives. Rocco was in the midst of setting a school record with 18 straight completions and finished the game with 300 yards and four touchdowns on 29-of-37 passing.
“It is a random rotation,” Lazor said. “We reserve the right in certain situations that maybe a certain guy is more suited to how the game is going or how they are playing.”
Rocco cut the deficit to 38-35 with 5:33 remaining when he connected with Jennings for the pair’s second touchdown of the game. The struggling Virginia defense forced the Hurricanes into a three-and-out on a drive that lasted just more than one minute, giving Rocco a chance to give Virginia the lead.
The Miami defense made its biggest play of the afternoon on the Cavaliers’ second play of the ensuing drive. With Virginia needing to throw downfield, Miami came with a blitz and brought down Rocco at the goal line. Rocco was called for intentional grounding in the end zone, resulting in a safety and sending possession back to the Hurricanes with a 40-35 lead.
Once again, the Virginia defense made a key stop when called upon. Senior linebackers Steve Greer and LaRoy Reynolds combined to bring down Johnson on a third-down rush, setting the stage for McGee’s game-winning touchdown.
“We have been talking about that all season, making an identity for our defense,” Greer said. “There were times when we gave up a little more than we wanted to, and we had a couple missed tackles that cost us, but I think we stepped up when we needed to.”
Virginia will host North Carolina (6-4, 3-3 ACC) Thursday evening with a chance to move one step closer to becoming bowl eligible.
“Winning these last two games has really put us in position,” Sims said. “This is a tournament now, you win and you’re in, you lose and you go home. This is the situation we put ourselves in, but we have to make the best of it and come out on top.”