By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The mistakes multiplied as the game wore on. Against Southern Mississippi, UVa suffered breakdowns on special teams, on offense and on defense at Scott Stadium.
And yet the Cavaliers, who had rallied for an improbable victory Sept. 10 at Indiana, found themselves in position to pull off another stunner Saturday. But on fourth-and-4 near midfield, normally sure-handed wideout Kris Burd dropped a pass from quarterback David Watford with 48 seconds left, and Virginia’s comeback hopes were extinguished.
“It’s a disappointing end to a drive that could have led to something fantastic again for this team,” second-year coach Mike London said.
As the final seconds ticked off the scoreboard clock, what remained of the crowd of 43,220 saw Southern Miss celebrate a 30-24 victory. Virginia’s players and coaches lingered on the field after a second straight disappointing performance. A week earlier, UVa had lost 28-17 at North Carolina.
London said he reminded his team that in Chapel Hill the Wahoos had been “close, but not close enough. This week, close but not close enough. In order to change the perception of this program and this team, we gotta come out and win games like that … These are close games, but you can be on the other side of a close game by executing.”
The Golden Eagles’ visit marked the start of a four-game homestand for London’s team. It continues next Saturday when Virginia (2-2) hosts Idaho (1-3) at 3:30 p.m. The Cavaliers have much to clean up before then.
“We’re not going to point fingers at anybody,” London said. “No one’s going to walk with their head down. This team is a young team that’s moving forward. We’re going to play better next week, and that’s what we gotta do. That’s the whole mindset here.”
In his postgame press conference Saturday night, London was not ready to say who would start at quarterback against the Vandals. Michael Rocco has taken the first snap for UVa in every game this season, but the sophomore from Lynchburg threw three interceptions against Southern Miss and took a pounding in the pocket before giving way to Watford late in the third quarter.
“I’ll find out what’s wrong with him physically, and then after that we’ll talk about if he can perform,” London said. “I’m worried about the young man’s health right now. If he can’t [play], then obviously that question is who’s going to be the quarterback for this upcoming game. But right now there’s no controversy. I’m worried more about the young man right now.”
Rocco’s second interception came in the final minute of the first half, with UVa trailing 21-13. Southern Miss defensive end Cordarro Law slammed into him just as Rocco was releasing the ball, and Rocco stayed down for several moments before getting up and walking slowly to the sideline, where Virginia’s medical staff examined him.
“I got hit on the play,” Rocco said, “but it’s no excuse to throw into coverage.”
Rocco was cleared to play in the second half, and he completed 4 of 5 passes on Virginia’s first possession of the third quarter, a 17-play drive that ended with Robert Randolph’s 21-yard field goal. But on the Cavaliers’ second series, Rocco threw into coverage and had another pass picked off, and the coaching staff had seen enough. Watford, a true freshman from Hampton, went the rest of the way.
At halftime, London said, it had appeared that Rocco “could go. And obviously on the last pick there, he showed that he couldn’t. That’s more the reason why David went in.”
Rocco said: “I got a little banged up, but that happens in football. I just felt like I could shake it off and go again. I made some decisions that I wish I could take back, but I can’t, and I just gotta move on.”
Watford finished 10-for-20 passing for 81 yards and one touchdown, a 1-yard toss to sophomore tight end Jeremiah Mathis after a deft play-action fake. That made it 27-22 with 5:18 left, and Virginia went for the 2-point conversion. Watford dropped back, rolled right and kept the play alive until he spotted Burd open at the goal line. The pass found its target, and suddenly it was a three-point game.
“That was an athletic play,” London said. “Obviously you don’t want the drama with all that, with having to escape the rusher that’s coming at him, but it showed some athleticism and some wherewithal … That was a good play, and we need more plays like that from everyone on the team.”
Of his performance Saturday, Watford said, “I felt like I could have played better. Everybody was telling me I did a good job, but I felt like I could have played better, made more plays, so we could have won at the end. It was a good experience, though.”
Virginia’s final possession began at the 30 after a 30-yard kickoff return by true freshman Darius Jennings. A 15-yard scramble by Watford gave the Cavaliers a first down at their 45, and then he passed to junior tailback Perry Jones for a 5-yard gain. The next two plays netted only 1 yard, however, and on fourth down Watford threw slightly behind Burd, who was running a crossing route.
Burd, who finished with a career-high nine receptions (for 88 yards), had the ball for an instant, but then it fell to the turf.
“I dropped it,” Burd said. “What it boils down to, me being a fifth-year senior and a leader, I gotta make that play.”
Watford said: “I should have thrown a better ball to Burd. He catches most everything, and I put the blame on me. It wasn’t his fault.”
There was plenty of blame to go around Saturday. On the first play of the second quarter, with the ‘Hoos leading 13-7 and seemingly poised to take control of the game, Southern Miss gained 31 yards on a daring fake punt.
On fourth-and-15 from the 8, Golden Eagles punter Danny Hrapmann lined up in his end zone. He took the snap and, behind a wall of blockers, started running to his right. It looked at first like a typical rugby-style punt, but when Hrapmann saw no UVa defenders on that side of the field, he took off down the USM sideline for a game-changing first down.
“It’s all on me,” said Anthony Poindexter, Virginia’s special-teams coordinator. “It’s the call we had in. Fourth-and-15, it’s a risky call that you make, because you’re not really protecting yourself for the fake. The other team’s backed up, you try to take a risk, try to get a little bit more yardage [on the return]. Credit to them.”
In a game in which each team totaled 374 yards, Southern Miss made most of the big plays. Senior Austin Davis, who has surpassed Brett Favre as the most productive quarterback in school history, completed 27 of 41 passes for 313 yards and three touchdowns.
Of all those passes, Davis’ 27th completion was “the big one,” UVa defensive coordinator Jim Reid said. “That’s the one everyone will remember.”
With 3:08 remaining, the score was 27-24, and Southern Miss faced third-and-23 from its 41-yard line. Davis took the snap, rolled to his right, stopped, turned and then floated a screen pass back to wideout Tracy Lampley.
Defensive end Cam Johnson tried in vain to catch Lampley from behind in the backfield. Outside linebacker LaRoy Reynolds overran the play, and then Lampley burst through the tackle attempts of cornerback Demetrious Nicholson and safety Corey Mosley. By the time UVa brought Lampley down, he had gained 41 yards.
“Obviously that was a tough one, because if we stop ’em right there, we got a great chance to do some things,” London said.
Virginia’s defense eventually held, forcing Southern Miss to settle for Hrapmann’s third field goal, which made it 30-24 with 91 seconds left. But the breakdown on third-and-23 made the challenge facing Watford and the offense that much greater.
“It was a nice scheme by them,” UVa middle linebacker Steve Greer said, “but at the same time we gotta execute. When it’s third-and-, we gotta stop ’em.”
Reynolds, who led Virginia with 12 tackles, agreed.
“We should have been able to stop it,” Reynolds said. “I was there to make the play and just didn’t make it. I’ll take the blame for that one.”
Eight regular-season games remain for a team that’s trying to advance to a bowl for the first time since 2007. Against Southern Miss, UVa blew a prime opportunity to take another step toward postseason. Especially troubling was that many of the Cavaliers’ mistakes also were evident in 2010, when the team finished 4-8.
“Any loss is frustrating, but especially when they come down to the wire like that,” Burd said. “In the locker room, we talked about finishing on the other side of this. We lost a lot of close games last year, and we’ve got to become a new team and a better team this year and take it as a learning lesson, so we don’t experience this any more.”
London said: “We understand and recognize the mistakes that we made and know that we have to correct those mistakes if we’re going to get anywhere this season in order to be a good football team.”