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Virginia aims to end three-game skid

Quarterback Phillip Sims makes first start against high-powered Duke offense

Virginia travels to Durham Saturday to face Duke in junior quarterback Phillip Sims’ first start of the season.

Despite their recent three-game skid, the Cavaliers (2-3, 0-1 ACC) remain optimistic they can start October off on the right foot with a victory against the Blue Devils (4-1, 1-0 ACC).

“We keep each other up,” sophomore running back Kevin Parks said. “We’ve been in this situation before; last year, we lost two games in a row. We just have to keep pushing, and eventually something good will happen.”

In an effort to spark his flailing team, Virginia coach Mike London announced Monday Sims would start as quarterback this week instead of junior Michael Rocco. The switch hardly surprised pundits after Sims came off the bench last Saturday and nearly spearheaded a Cavalier rally from a 44-24 deficit against Louisiana Tech on the heels of Rocco’s three-interception debacle. This is the first game in which Rocco will not start as quarterback since Nov. 27, 2010.

“I kind of just took it in stride,” Sims said of learning he usurped Rocco. “It’s not really something that you can sit there and think about too much. You’ve got a job to do. People are asking more of you, and you have to deliver.”

So far in 2012, Sims is 28-of-46 for 340 yards with five touchdowns and no interceptions. Endowed with a cannon of an arm and decent accuracy, the highly touted Oscar Smith High School prospect finished his high school career as Virginia’s all-time leader in passing yardage and touchdowns. He has a skill set conducive to an explosive downfield passing game. Last week he completed four passes of more than 20 yards and had a 27-yard touchdown hurl dropped by sophomore receiver E.J. Scott.

“I like to give guys opportunities to make plays,” Sims said. “Throwing the football down the field is just something I feel comfortable doing. I think I have the arm strength and the accuracy to make those throws, so I might as well just capitalize on that.”

Sims dismissed London’s concerns that a lower-leg injury sustained against the Bulldogs last weekend will foil his first opportunity to start.

To help Virginia quash its losing streak, Sims will need to improve the team’s performance in the turnover department. The Cavaliers negative-10 turnover margin ranks 116th in the FBS, with both Rocco’s eight interceptions and the defense’s general incapacity to create takeaways crippling the squad. Last week alone Louisiana Tech scored 21 points off the three Rocco picks.

“You never stop practicing it and never stop preaching the importance of turnovers … how negatively it affected us,” London said. “But that’s something that will continue to be harped on, will continue to be coached and made an example of.”

Duke’s play has been consistently strong this season. Particularly impressive is senior wide receiver Conner Vernon, who tied Aaron Kelly’s ACC record of 232 career receptions last week. Under the leadership of coach David Cutcliffe, an offensive guru who coached both Peyton and Eli Manning, the Blue Devils feature a wide-open offense that relies heavily on bubble screens and quick releases — two offensive quirks that the Cavaliers struggled to combat when facing Louisiana Tech.

Past Duke-Virginia matchups have turned into close contests. The Cavaliers notched a 31-21 win last season, and the Blue Devils triumphed 55-48 the season before.

“It’s just game-planning, knowing each other pretty well, that makes it a close game,” Virginia senior defensive tackle Will Hill said.

After watching his team commit a heinous 16 penalties last week, London hopes his players refrain from extracurricular interaction with the feisty Blue Devils.

“There’s a difference between talking tough and playing tough, and I’m all about playing tough and not talking tough,” London said.