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Sept. 30, 2012

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — University of Virginia quarterback Phillip Sims stood on the sideline Saturday night, desperately hoping for one more possession, one more opportunity to shred Louisiana Tech’s beleaguered defense. It never came.

In a game in which third-year coach Mike London’s team was penalized 16 times — one shy of the school record — it was fitting, perhaps, that a yellow flag ended the Cavaliers’ hopes of avoiding a third straight defeat.

With 1:45 left and undefeated Louisiana Tech facing fourth-and-1 from its 35-yard line, the Wahoos, confused about which personnel group to use, were penalized for having 12 men on the field. Virginia was out of timeouts, and Louisiana Tech then kneeled on three consecutive plays to run out the clock in a 44-38 victory at Scott Stadium.

Sims, who replaced erratic starter Michael Rocco late in the third quarter, had thrown touchdown passes on each of the Cavaliers’ previous two possessions to help them cut a 20-point deficit to six, and the redshirt sophomore from Chesapeake was confident the offense could strike again if given the chance.

Virginia, which came in averaging 372.5 yards, finished with 625 against a Louisiana Tech defense that lost two starters to injuries during the game. UVa’s 480 yards passing smashed the previous school record of 417.

“You can always wonder what might have happened, but we’ll never know, and I think that’s the hardest thing about it,” said Sims, who transferred to UVa from Alabama after the 2011-12 school year.

“Everybody just wanted another opportunity to go out and win the football game. I hated to see the look in some of the guys’ eyes after the game, just seeing that they didn’t get the chance to make that play that they desperately wanted to make. They just didn’t get the opportunity. I think that’s the hardest part about it, the fact that we didn’t get the chance. If we get the chance, who knows what happens?”

London, still furious about the final penalty called on his team, chose his words carefully in his postgame press conference. After trying successfully to draw Virginia (2-3) offsides on fourth-and-1, the Bulldogs (4-0) had called a timeout to discuss their options.

The Cavaliers “assumed that we were going to punt the ball,” Louisiana Tech coach Sonny Dykes said. “At that point, I didn’t feel comfortable punting the ball … I pretty much knew we were going to go for it.”

When the teams returned to the field, sophomore Khalek Shepherd dropped back deep to receive a punt, but when the Cavaliers’ coaches realized that Louisiana Tech had not sent out its punter, they inserted a defensive back and motioned frantically for Shepherd to come out. He didn’t reach the sideline before the official threw his flag, a penalty that gave the Bulldogs a victory-sealing first down.

“The way the game ended, I hate,” Dykes said. “You hate for two hard-fought teams to fight as hard as they did and have it ended that way.”

London hated it more. He told reporters that Shepherd “should have been given the opportunity to leave the game,” but Doug Rhoads, the ACC’s supervisor of officials, confirmed in an email Sunday morning that the call was correct. A team is not allowed to have 12 men on the field for more than three seconds, Rhoads said. UVa’s 12th man was on the field “between 8-11 seconds after La Tech came to the ball,” wrote Rhoads, who reviewed the videotape Saturday night.

At halftime Saturday, UVa’s 1968 football team was honored at Scott Stadium. That team finished 7-3, the Cavaliers’ first winning season in 16 years. Among the victories was a 41-14 rout of Davidson in which Virginia was penalized 17 times for 231 yards, school records that still stand.

Not only were the `Hoos called for 16 penalties against Louisiana Tech, for 145 yards, they turned the ball over three times, all on interceptions thrown by Rocco, a junior from Lynchburg, in his 18th consecutive start at quarterback.

“We gained a lot of yards and scored some points,” offensive coordinator Bill Lazor said, “but the key is the self-inflicted wounds … I don’t know how many of those penalties were on offense, but it seemed like a lot, and we had some drives that were clearly impacted by those penalties. That’s the disappointing thing: I thought we hurt ourselves. Not taking credit away from [the Bulldogs], because I thought they played hard, but the penalties and turnovers really hurt today.”

Backup linebacker Chris Hester returned Rocco’s third interception 32 yards for a touchdown, and Matt Nelson added the extra point to put the Bulldogs up 41-24 with 5:08 left in the third quarter. At that point, many fans in the crowd of 42,027 headed for the exits. Early in the fourth quarter, Nelson booted a 45-yard field goal to make it 44-24, and even more spectators departed.

Those who stayed were treated to a dramatic final 12:47 in which Virginia nearly pulled off a stunning comeback.

“It was great to see the guys fighting back and getting back into a position [where another] touchdown wins the game,” London said.

This loss is sure to haunt the Cavaliers. Late in the first half, they had the ball leading 24-10 and were seemingly in command. On a first-and-10 play, Rocco, who had already thrown two TD passes, hit sophomore wideout Darius Jennings for a 7-yard completion that moved Virginia across midfield.

After Jennings was tackled, however, offensive guard Sean Cascarano was called for a personal foul, and suddenly the `Hoos were facing 2-and-18 from their 40, not second-and-3 from the Bulldogs’ 45. On the next play, Rocco’s pass glanced off the hands of sophomore wideout Dominique Terrell, and Louisiana Tech’s Quinn Giles returned the interception 30 yards to the UVa 25.

Two plays later, tailback Ray Holley scored the first of his two touchdowns, and the Bulldogs were back in the game.

Rocco, who completed 9 of his first 10 passes Saturday, never seemed to recover from the first turnover. Virginia went three-and-out on its next series, and by halftime Louisiana Tech trailed by only four points.

Cascarano was later called for another personal foul, and he wasn’t the only UVa player who couldn’t control his emotions Saturday.

“There was a lot of chippiness going on out there,” London said. “A lot of talking, stuff that we don’t need to get involved with.

“You gotta be smart. We talk about being physical, but also playing with poise, and you can’t have however many penalties we had … I’ll take responsibility for that. We gotta play with better poise and be smart about what goes on.”

Against a spread offense that came in averaging 536.7 yards per game, UVa’s defense had some breakdowns, but overall the unit acquitted itself well. The Bulldogs finished with 385 yards and, for the first time this season, did not score at least 52 points.

A 94-yard kickoff return by D.J. Banks midway through the second quarter put Louisiana Tech on the UVa 3, but defensive coordinator Jim Reid’s charges held with a goal-line stand that kept the score 24-10.

Senior middle linebacker Steve Greer led the `Hoos with 14 tackles, and sophomore safety Anthony Harrris had 12. Greer, one of the Cavaliers’ captains, knows the team is entering a critical stretch of the season.

“I think the most important thing is we stick together,” Greer said. “I think we realize how close we are [to winning]. If we cut out some mistakes, we’re right there.”

The penalties and turnovers marred an otherwise stellar performance by the offense. Rocco passed for 278 yards and two TDs before giving way to Sims with 5:08 left in the third period.

Senior tailback Perry Jones had his best game of the season. He finished with 82 yards rushing and a career-high 100 yards receiving and, for good measure, threw a 36-yard touchdown pass to junior wideout Tim Smith — a former teammate at Oscar Smith High in Chesapeake — on a first-quarter option play.

In Virginia’s win at ACC rival Miami last year, Jones and Smith had connected on a similar play, that time for a 37-yard touchdown pass.

“It’s definitely a good feeling to know your team can depend on you in any phase of the game,” Jones said.

Other standouts for the offense: Shepherd, whose first touchdown reception as a Cavalier, on a pass from Rocco, went for 73 yards; true freshman wideout Adrian Gamble, who with 2:08 to play leaped in the back of the end zone to snare a 24-yard pass from Sims for UVa’s final touchdown; Jennings, who caught six passes for a career-best 136 yards; and sophomore wideout E.J. Scott, who had a career-long 43-yard reception.

“We’ve been talking about the receivers and how they have to step up,” London said. “They did a good job, and I thought again Phillip did a good job of coming in and handling the part of the offense that he had to handle to move the team.”

Sims finished 10-of-17 passing for 166 yards and two TDs. His longest completion went to Jennings for a 47-yard gain on the first play of UVa’s final possession.

“I thought Phillip played well,” Lazor said. “I think the No. 1 thing Phil has to do, and sometimes it’s hard when you’re inserted kind of in the middle of the heated battle, but he’s got to learn to play on time. He’s got to get the ball out of his hand fast. I think he did a good job throwing the ball accurately down the field. He gave our guys a chance to make plays down the field, so I thought that was impressive. It looked from the sideline at least like we had good poise in the pocket, and we’ll keep working on it.

“I know I’ve said it before, but every week he’s here, I think you’re closer to seeing him be able to execute the whole offense. What we saw out there was being put, like backup quarterbacks often are, in a really tough situation, and going out and executing it with poise. So I was really proud of him.”

Sims, who like Jones and Smith graduated from Oscar Smith High, said he “real comfortable with the offense. It’s the first time that I’ve really gotten extended playing time in that situation, so with the adrenaline pumping, I just think that I felt real comfortable in the offense, and it helped me.”

The coaching staff continually reminds him, Sims said, that “there’s no pressure on me to go in and win the game with one play. One play at a time, make your reads, go through your progressions, and do the things that I’ve been taught to do since I’ve been here. There’s no rush to throw a 90-yard touchdown on your first play every time. Just do the little things, and the big things will happen for you.”

The big question on the minds’ of many UVa fans, of course, is whether Sims will supplant Rocco as the starter. London was noncommittal Saturday.

“I haven’t seen the tape, I can’t make any decisions about that right now,” London said.

This much, though, London knows:

“I’m going to coach this team hard,” he said. “Not going to give up on this team, not going to allow them to give up on themselves.

“It’s a tough loss, but you know what, it’s a long season … There’s a lot of positive things to take from this. I appreciate the fans that stayed out and stayed till the very end. It means a lot to see people there jumping up and down and making that noise at the end. To the fans, hang with us. Don’t leave. Hang with us. We’ll be fine, we’ll be all right, but we need your support. I’ll coach the guys harder, I’ll coach the guys better, and we’ll be representatives of this university.”

UP NEXT: UVa, which lost Sept. 15 at Georgia Tech, plays its second ACC game Saturday afternoon in Durham, N.C. Virginia (0-1, 2-3) meets Duke (1-0, 4-1) in a 3 o’clock game at Wallace Wade Stadium.

The Cavaliers ended a three-game losing streak in the series last fall by defeating the Blue Devils 31-21 at Scott Stadium. UVa leads the series 33-30.

Among the UVa players who missed the Louisiana Tech game with injuries were starting defensive end Bill Schautz, starting linebacker LaRoy Reynolds and reserve tailback Clifton Richardson. Their status for the Duke game is uncertain.

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