Sept. 23, 2011

By Jeff White

CHARLOTTESVILLE — This time last month, Michael Rocco was taking most of the snaps with UVa’s No. 1 offense in practice, but Mike London had yet to name his team’s starting quarterback for the Sept. 3 opener against William and Mary.

Three games into London’s second season as Virginia’s head coach, Rocco’s grip on the job appears to be tightening. The sophomore from Lynchburg has not been perfect in his three starts, but he’s shown why the coaching staff picked him over true freshman David Watford, sophomore Ross Metheny and redshirt freshman Michael Strauss.

Heading into its 3:30 p.m. game Saturday against visiting Southern Mississippi (2-1), UVa is 2-1, and Rocco has completed 58 of 95 passes (61.1 percent) for 652 yards and one touchdown, with four interceptions.

“I think Mike has demonstrated the ability to distribute the ball as we’ve asked,” London said.

Offensive coordinator Bill Lazor said: “We’re expecting more from him all the time. I thought the way he managed the first game was a big step as far as showing us how he’d go out there.”

Against W&M, Rocco completed his first 11 passes. He finished 21 for 29 for 174 yards and no interceptions in UVa’s 40-3 romp at Scott Stadium.

“That was step No. 1,” Lazor said. “Step No. 2 in my mind — big step No. 2 — was the 15-play drive and the 2-point conversion to tie up the Indiana game in the fourth quarter. I thought that was a pressure-filled situation, and he performed well on that drive.”

On Sept. 10, the Cavaliers trailed 31-23 when they took over at Indiana’s 23-yard line with 6:29 to play in Bloomington. After junior tailback Perry Jones scored on a 2-yard run, Rocco passed to junior tight end Paul Freedman for the game-tying 2-point conversion. The Wahoos went on to win 34-31.

A week later, in a 28-17 loss to ACC rival North Carolina, Rocco completed 22 of 37 throws for a career-high 287 yards and one touchdown. For the second straight week, he was picked off twice, but Rocco’s second interception came with 16 seconds left and the outcome effectively settled.

Rocco remains something of a reluctant runner, but he scrambled for an 11-yard gain against Indiana. He juked out defenders on a 4-yard TD run against UNC, and he also had a 9-yard run at Kenan Stadium.

The ‘Hoos are averaging 30.3 points and 441.3 yards per game. Lazor said he’s seen Rocco take “little steps” that may not be apparent to those outside the program, “maybe plays that I see him make and I think, ‘OK, finally he threw that route and did this,’ things we’ve been working on in practice and I’d be excited to see happen in the game.

“And every time it turns out positively, it’s like, well, you just check off another one, and now you add to his repertoire of confidence. It’s constantly going, but I think those two things that I mentioned were probably the biggest steps, because until a guy’s out there playing, you just don’t know. And until a guy has to really bring you back and win, that’s always hanging over his head. And I thought he did a great job in the Indiana game, and he’s better because of it, and we’re better because he had the opportunity to do that.”

Rocco had a 40-yard completion to sophomore wide receiver Tim Smith against W&M and 32-yarder to Smith against UNC. For the most part, though, Rocco has thrown short or intermediate passes.

Lazor wants the offense to produce more big plays, but he noted that vertical passes aren’t the only way to achieve that goal.

“We want to be able to throw the ball all over the field, and pushing it down the field is part of it,” Lazor said, “but we also need to continue to create big plays in the run game.”

UVa has depth and talent at tailback. Redshirt freshman Kevin Parks has had a 34-yard run this season, Jones a 23-yarder, true freshman Clifton Richardson a 20-yarder. Senior fullback Max Milien has yet to carry the ball this season, but he had a 37-yard touchdown run at Georgia Tech in 2010.

“It’s going to be run and pass,” Lazor said. “That’s always what we’re going to be here, both run and pass … I do feel very good about the amount of guys we have on this offense that can make big plays. I just try to put the responsibility on myself to get them in position to do it.”

Like UVa, Southern Miss is averaging 30.3 points. Senior quarterback Austin Davis, who has broken all of Brett Favre’s passing records at the Conference USA school, directs a spread offense that figures to seriously challenge the Cavaliers’ defense. Virginia’s offense knows it needs to be more productive than it was in Chapel Hill.

Against Carolina, the ‘Hoos gained 468 yards, but the scoreboard did not reflect their statistical superiority. That was “a tough loss, and the offense kind of shouldered it a little bit,” senior wideout Kris Burd said.

“As an offense, our job is to score points, and regardless of how many yards or the stats, we didn’t score enough points to win. We talked about it in the film room. Moving the ball is only moving the ball. If you don’t get points, it’s pretty irrelevant.”

Two years ago, on a steamy afternoon in Hattiesburg, Miss., the Golden Eagles trailed by 17 points midway through the third quarter but rallied to beat the Cavaliers 37-34. The rematch is “an important game,” Burd said, but not because Virginia is obsessed with avenging that 2009 loss.

“We want to get a good win and get back positive with things and kind of get this bad taste of this [UNC] loss out of our mouth,” Burd said. “We’ve just got a lot to prove. We still don’t have a lot of respect from the outside looking in, but we know what we’re capable of, and we’ve just got to prove it on Saturday.”

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