By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
FORT WORTH, Texas — After suffering back-to-back road losses, each by at least 20 points, UVa’s football team is not where it hoped to be four games into the 2012 season. Not even close.
The offense continues to turn the ball over at an alarming rate, consistency continues to elude quarterback Michael Rocco, and the defense remains prone to giving up big plays.
Offensive coordinator Bill Lazor acknowledged Saturday afternoon that it’s “easy to say the sky’s falling when you lose two in a row.” Yet the Wahoos were far from despondent after losing 27-7 to No. 17 TCU before an announced sellout crowd of 46,330 at Amon Carter Stadium.
The final score notwithstanding, head coach Mike London said, “believe it or not there are some positive things that occurred for us out there on the field against a top-20 team.”
UVa’s next opponent isn’t nationally ranked — at least not yet — but unbeaten Louisiana Tech won 52-24 at Illinois on Saturday night and is averaging 54.7 points per game this season. The Cavaliers (2-2) host the Bulldogs (3-0) next Saturday at 3:30 p.m. at Scott Stadium.
“We’re 2-2,” London told reporters at TCU. “We are what we are right now, with a chance to get better, a chance to go back home and do some things, play some games, get these things corrected.”
On an unseasonably warm day, TCU’s vaunted defense was as unrelenting as the Texas sun. Still, Virginia’s offense, which managed only 297 yards in a 56-20 loss at Georgia Tech, totaled 353 against the Horned Frogs and easily could have gained many more.
“They were fast, they were physical, but we moved the ball,” Rocco said. “Take no credit away from them, they’re a great defense, and they force turnovers, but I believe in our offense. I believe we can play with anybody.”
The Cavaliers “got in our own way at times” with turnovers, penalties and other breakdowns, Rocco noted.
Of Virginia’s four turnovers Saturday, three came with the outcome still in doubt. The first proved especially costly.
TCU led 7-0 early in the second quarter when, on a third-and-12 run, UVa tailback Kevin Parks fumbled. Linebacker Kenny Cain, who later would intercept two passes, recovered at the Cavaliers’ 42-yard line. Seven plays later, a touchdown gave TCU all the points it would need to win this one.
It’s “always deflating,” London said, “when you’re moving pretty good and all of the sudden there’s a turnover.”
For the Cavaliers, one missed opportunity in particular stood out Saturday. Midway through the first quarter, with TCU leading 7-0, Virginia went for the big play. On third-and-16 from UVa’s 16-yard line, Rocco threw a long, accurate pass intended for sophomore wide receiver Darius Jennings, who was sprinting along the left sideline.
Covering Jennings was Kevin White. The TCU cornerback fell as Jennings ran past him and made contact with Jennings’ left ankle. When he finally cleared White, Jennings looked back over his right shoulder but did not get his hands up in time to snare the ball, which appeared to hit his helmet before dropping to the ground.
“You could argue about whether there was interference there or not,” London said. “It is what it is. They didn’t call it over there.”
Jennings made no excuses.
“As a receiver, you know that a DB is going to try to grab you,” he said. “You just gotta fight it all the time. I was able to get his hands off me, and that’s why I did get behind him, but I guess when he fell, his hands kind of tripped my ankle a little bit. But if the refs didn’t call it, it’s not a flag.
“I got behind him. Rocco threw a great ball, it was right there. I just gotta go get that.”
Had Jennings come down with the ball, no Horned Frogs were between him and the end zone. He had an opportunity for another TD reception late in the third quarter, but a vicious goal-line hit by safety Chris Hackett jarred the ball out of Jennings’ hands for an incompletion.
One play later, on fourth-and-6 from TCU’s 12-yard line, a ferocious pass rush forced Rocco into another incompletion, and Virginia turned the ball over on downs.
For the Horned Frogs, the victory was their 28th in their past 29 games at home.
“That’s a very, very good football team,” London said. “It’s one of the best defenses in the country perennially, the last couple years, and they did some nice things. They did some things that [make] you see why they are where they are.”
Rocco made his 17th consecutive start for the `Hoos. If not for several dropped passes, his numbers would have been better, but Rocco rarely looked sharp Saturday. The junior from Lynchburg completed 13 of 28 passes for 126 yards, with two interceptions, before giving way to sophomore Phillip Sims with UVa down 20-0 early in the fourth quarter.
Sims didn’t dazzle, either. He lost a fumble on Virginia’s final possession and connected on only 5 of 12 passes for 63 yards.
But one of his completions, on a deep ball to sophomore wideout Dominique Terrell, went for 40 yards, and Sims later threw a 5-yard touchdown pass to another sophomore wideout, E.J. Scott, to help Virginia avert the shutout. The TD was the first TCU has allowed this season.
Against Georgia Tech, Sims came off the bench late to throw two touchdown passes, the second one on the game’s final play.
It would be difficult for him to accurately assess his quarterbacks’ play, London said, before reviewing videotape of the game.
However, London said Saturday, “I know we didn’t score any points till the very end down there, and I know we had four turnovers, I know that for sure, and then that’s something we have to look at tomorrow and then talk about it as a staff about what we do, how do we correct it. Whether it’s personnel, whether it’s scheme, whatever it might be, we gotta do better.”
Asked where things stood with the quarterbacks, Lazor said, “I’ll have to watch the video to give a fair assessment of how it went. I’m just going to have to find a way to create more points … We just have to do a great job of taking the positive things that we’re doing from this and emphasizing those and being great at evaluating. At some of the areas where we’re not doing well, just evaluate if we’re doing the right thing and if we have the right people in the right spots.
“That’s what we do every week, and obviously it’s easy to say that the sky’s falling when you lose two in the row, but we believe in what we’re doing, we believe in the players we have, and we’ll make sure we’re getting the right people in the right spots.”
UVa finished with 164 yards rushing, thanks in large part to second-half gains of 49 by Parks and 27 by Rocco, career highs for both players. Jennings, who has emerged as Virginia’s top receiver, did not distinguish himself Saturday, but his classmate Terrell had five catches for 86 yards — both career highs for one of the most heralded recruits to enroll at Virginia in 2011.
“I felt real comfortable today out there,” Terrell said. “I felt like I knew what I was doing. Got open, got the ball a couple times … I’ve been waiting for a game like this to happen.”
Lazor said: “The reality is, the good performances kind of get wiped out when you don’t score enough points. But there were good things out there. There were some guys that played well, and some guys are maturing and are just going to get better from it.”
Against TCU, the Cavaliers regained the services of starting defensive end Bill Schautz, who missed the Georgia Tech game with a hamstring injury, but they played without one of their team captains, senior outside linebacker LaRoy Reynolds.
Reynolds had surgery Friday in Charlottesville to repair a hand injury suffered against Georgia Tech. D.J. Hill took Reynolds’ place in the lineup, and in the first start of his college career — also by far his longest appearance — the 6-0, 210-pound sophomore led the `Hoos with eight tackles.
Virginia surrendered a 68-yard touchdown pass on TCU’s first series, but overall the defense played much better than it had in Atlanta.
“It’s hard not to, after last week,” junior defensive end Jake Snyder said. “But we felt like we played a pretty good game, though not good enough, obviously.”
The defense came into the game not having forced a turnover all defense. The Cavaliers came up with two Saturday.
“I was really proud of the way our players played today,” defensive coordinator Jim Reid said.
“I still think we were a little shaken from last week at the beginning of the game, and we ran back on our heels a little bit. Then I thought we went hell-bent for election, and started playing with a little bit of a swagger and a little bit of confidence. We finished up like we were excited and ready to get into next week, because I’m going to tell you what what: You thought [the Horned Frogs] were fast, wait until you see next week’s team.”
UVa’s standouts Saturday included cornerback Maurice Canady. A true freshman who plays in passing situations, Canady picked off a pass at the Virginia 3-yard line late in the first half. Virginia forced another turnover early in the fourth quarter when sophomore linebacker Daquan Romero tackled a TCU wideout who was about to score and knocked the ball loose from behind. The ball bounced through the end zone, and UVa took possession at its 20.
Still, Snyder said, there “were too many big plays [Saturday], too many mistakes. We got a mentality that everyone’s got to be accountable for their assignments on every play, and that’s not what you saw today. Even if we play 90 percent of the snaps well, if one guy makes one mistake on one play, that’s going to be too much, and that’s when you saw those big plays happen. And every one of us is accountable for that. It’s not any one person, it’s not any one group of people or position.”
After the debacle at Georgia Tech, Reid said Saturday, some people suggested that he not bother showing the videotape to his players. He disagreed.
“We’ve got to show them the tape,” Reid said. “That’s the only way they’re going to get better, if they see some of the mistakes they made, and I think the guys got better today … This was a good growth game for some of those guys. We just gotta continue to get better.”
That’s sure to be the Cavaliers’ manta as they prepare for Louisiana Tech.
“There’s nothing better than winning,” London said. “When you’ve lost two games back to back, it’s a terrible feeling in the locker room. We gotta get it corrected, and if we do what we’re supposed to do, we have a chance to play and do well and win.”