QBs embrace new rotation after thriving vs. NC State
London plans to deploy dual quarterback attack again after big win against Wolfpack
As the losses mounted, the smile never faded from the face of gregarious sophomore quarterback Phillip Sims. The cool confidence never wavered from junior quarterback Michael Rocco as he watched from the sideline. With three games remaining in a 2012 season defined largely by a quarterback competition that has seemingly lasted as long as the presidential election, the Virginia coaching staff believes it may have reached a verdict: too close to call.
For the first time this season during last Saturday’s 33-6 road drubbing of N.C. State, the Cavaliers relied on a true rotation at the game’s most important position, alternating between Sims and Rocco every few possessions. The results were unequivocally positive. Virginia notched its highest point total in a conference game this season and rolled to the largest victory against an ACC opponent since 2008.
“After winning, everything is that much better,” Sims said. “It’s sweeter, the whole team is energized and everybody is back to normal … it’s good to see smiles on guys’ faces when they come in the door instead of everybody frowning like, ‘how are [we] gonna turn it around.’”
In his weekly press conference Monday, coach Mike London added another chapter to the ongoing saga that is the Cavaliers’ quarterback battle. The third-year coach said the team would return to the series-by-series approach it used against the Wolfpack as Virginia tries to keep its long-shot bowl odds alive against Miami Saturday. Virginia must win its final three games against Miami, North Carolina and Virginia Tech to qualify for a bowl appearance.
“Both guys have things that they do, different skill sets that they bring to the table,” London said. “Michael is a guy that’s been in the offense, knows the offense. Phillip has a strong arm and is kind of learning on the job so to speak, and he has some skills himself that we like, and he can get the ball to some of the other playmakers.”
Sims used the bye week to develop a stronger rapport with his receivers and improve his sometimes sporadic accuracy and inconsistent timing on passes. His production as a starter had waned in losses to Maryland and Wake Forest as defenses learned the tendencies of the first-time starter. Sims and Rocco split snaps during the bye week as London and offensive coordinator Bill Lazor mapped out an unlikely game plan to try to spark the listless offense.
“As practice went on, and looking at the things that they do well and trying to game plan and fit plays that fit their skills, whether it’s based on arm strength or using the ball to run out of pocket scenarios with them, we just looked at it as, here we have two guys that … have run the offense and they both bring something to the table for us,” London said.
Enter — or reenter — Rocco, whose dink-and-dunk style has both kept the Cavaliers competitive and left plenty to be desired during the past two seasons. Rocco’s experience and offensive knowledge helped him regain his starting job entering the season. He was coming off a season in which he set the school record for passing yards by a sophomore with 2,671 yards while leading Virginia to an appearance in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
Sims, who had transferred from Alabama in search of a starting role, took the decision in stride.
“Both of us have got to realize that the team comes first over any individual no matter who you are,” Sims said. “So I think that’s something that we both realize and we’re comfortable with and we’ll do whatever we’re asked to do.”
There was never any doubt that Sims was the flashier alternative to Rocco. A five-star recruit coming out of Oscar Smith High School — where he was teammates with Cavalier offensive stars senior running back Perry Jones and junior wide receiver Tim Smith — Sims set the Virginia high school record for career passing yards and was the top-ranked quarterback prospect in the nation in 2010, according to ESPNU.
After Sims impressed in cameo appearances during each of the team’s first five games this season — demonstrating his powerful arm and play-making ability — he was tapped for his first career start against Duke Oct. 6. Three games later, Sims was still searching for his first win as a starting quarterback.
After completing 61 percent of his passes with five touchdowns and no interceptions in five games as a backup, Sims looked far less spectacular in a leading role. In his first three starts, Sims threw just two touchdowns with four interceptions, and the offense averaged less than 16 points per game. The bye week has helped Sims regain the dynamic ability he displayed while backing up Rocco.
“It was just getting reps with different guys when you don’t necessarily have to worry about a defense that week, you don’t have to game plan against anybody, just focusing on the little things that your team has to do to get better,” Sims said. “I think that’s what really helped me over the bye week, just really being able to hone in on the small things.”
Both quarterbacks appeared revitalized against the Wolfpack. Sims completed 8-of-10 passes for 115 yards and a touchdown and rushed for another score. Rocco connected on 12-of-23 passes for 83 yards, a touchdown and a season-high 36 rushing yards. For the first time since the season-opening win against Richmond, neither quarterback threw an interception.
“I just really think we were clicking on all cylinders the other day,” Sims said. “And no matter who was in at quarterback, everybody else fell in together and we just moved the ball all day long. I’m not sure if it was the quarterback system or what it was that sparked it, but we’ll keep doing whatever it was.”