By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
COLLEGE PARK, Md. — Two blitzing Maryland defenders converged on Michael Rocco, intent on sandwiching the sophomore quarterback. The pressure did not faze him. An instant before the Terrapins slammed into him, Rocco released the football, lofting a perfect pass to tailback Kevin Parks, who had slipped out of the backfield uncovered.
The play put the Cavaliers back in front for good Saturday afternoon at Byrd Stadium, and it offered more evidence of Rocco’s growth as a quarterback.
It’s not easy to stand in the pocket like that, says UVa offensive coordinator Bill Lazor, who speaks from experience. He played quarterback at Cornell University.
With no blockers in the backfield, “the quarterback’s job is to beat the free-rusher with the football,” Lazor said after Virginia’s 31-13 victory Saturday. “And when he’s called upon to do that it takes courage, it takes toughness, and that’s a huge part of playing the position at this level, where we face some really good pass-rushers, guys who are explosive and can hurt you when they hit you. It takes courage and toughness to stand in there. Despite the fact that he simply did his job, you’re still proud of seeing a guy do it.”
Rocco, who appeared in six games as a true freshman in 2010, has started every game for UVa (3-2 ACC, 6-3) this season. In each of the first seven games, however, true freshman David Watford replaced Rocco for at least one series.
The coaching staff scrapped the two-quarterback rotation after Virginia’s loss to NC State on Oct. 22. Coincidentally or not, Rocco has sparkled in the past two games, both ACC road victories for UVa.
“He’s just more comfortable out there,” said sophomore wide receiver Tim Smith, who had five catches for a career-high 101 yards Saturday. “We go through practice all the time, and we tell him, ‘Just trust us,’ and that’s what he’s doing. He’s comfortable in the pocket, the line’s holding up for him, so he doesn’t have too much pressure, and he’s just delivering the ball.”
In a nationally televised game Oct. 27 against ACC rival Miami, Rocco completed 11 of 20 passes for 226 yards and two touchdowns, and he wasn’t intercepted in Virginia’s 28-21 win.
Nine days later, at Byrd Stadium, Rocco was 23-of-35 passing for a career-best 307 yards and two TDs. He threw one pick, but the turnover came after Virginia had built a 31-13 lead. Rocco also had a 16-yard scramble for a first down against the Terrapins.
“I think Mike Rocco’s gotten better every day,” Lazor said after the game Saturday. “Today on the sideline I felt like — without having watched the video yet — I felt like he was seeing things well. He was under control in the pocket. He was throwing the ball accurately. We’re all still aiming for that perfect game, but from watching him from the sideline, which is where I watch the games with him, I had confidence that he was going to have a productive day.”
In the third quarter, Rocco connected with fullback Max Milien on a 17-yard pass play that produced UVa’s final touchdown. Rocco’s first TD pass, to Parks, gave the Wahoos a much-needed boost after a half in which mistakes had tripped up Lazor’s offense.
“We had been moving the ball,” Rocco said. “We just hadn’t been finishing. That’s our goal: Every drive we gotta finish it with some sort of points. In the second quarter, that last drive, we decided we needed to get the ball in the end zone, and that’s what we did. And it was important in the game, it kind of got us some momentum going into halftime.”
For the season, Rocco has completed 143 of 238 passes (60.1 percent) for 1,719 yards and eight TDs, with nine interceptions. Seven of those interceptions, however, came in the first four games, a stretch in which the 6-3, 225-pound right-hander threw only one TD pass.
“I feel like being a young player, being a first-year starter, there’s going to be bumps along the road,” senior wideout Kris Burd said. “But you’re going to find your niche and you’re going to find your groove, and I feel like he’s definitely found his groove now.”
The Cavaliers’ second-year head coach agrees.
“I think Michael, the last couple games, particularly this game, has done a great job managing the football team, managing the plays, making the audibles, making the throws, the checks and the reads,” Mike London said Saturday at Byrd Stadium.
“Michael’s had a chance to take the reins, and his development has continued. Players have rallied around him. You know, he’s a quiet leader right now, but a young man that’s getting better as a quarterback. He’s already a great person.”
Virginia, which became bowl-eligible with its win over Maryland, has three regular-season games remaining, starting this weekend. UVa hosts Coastal Division rival Duke (1-4, 3-6) at 3 p.m. Saturday.