By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Once in the second quarter and again in the fourth on Saturday, a Louisiana Tech ball-carrier got hit by a UVa defender and fumbled at Scott Stadium.
Each time the football took a favorable bounce for the visiting team. The Bulldogs recovered both fumbles in a game in which they held off a late Virginia comeback and won 44-38.
“It is frustrating, a little deflating,” UVa defensive tackle Will Hill said Monday, “to make a big play to turn the tide of the game and then to see it go back to their hands.”
It’s been that kind of season for the Cavaliers (2-3 overall, 0-1 ACC), who meet Coastal Division rival Duke (4-1, 1-0) at 3 p.m. Saturday at Wallace Wade Stadium in Durham, N.C.
Virginia has forced three turnovers this season — two on defense and one on special teams. Of the 120 teams in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision, only four have fewer turnovers gained than UVa, which is tied with Southern Mississippi and Wisconsin for 114th in the category: Arkansas and Central Michigan, with two apiece; and Buffalo and Oklahoma, with one each.
Before Mike London became a head coach — first at the University of Richmond and now at UVa, where he’s in his third season — he was a defensive assistant. At his weekly press conference Monday at John Paul Jones Arena, London recalled being part of teams that forced more than two dozen turnovers in a season and talked about the mentality those defenses had.
He’s as baffled as anyone about the Cavaliers’ inability to come up with turnovers this season. He’s seen fumbles bounce back to the offense, as in the Louisiana Tech game, and he’s seen his defensive backs drop several balls that would have been interceptions.
Making things worse for the Wahoos, of course, has been their propensity for turning the ball over themselves. Of the 120 teams that compete in the FBS, UVa is tied with Auburn, Idaho and Navy for 116th in turnover margin (minus-2 per game).
Virginia has thrown eight interceptions and lost five fumbles. Only three FBS teams have more turnovers: Arkansas and Troy (15 apiece) and Idaho (16).
Against Louisiana Tech, UVa turned the ball over three times, all on interceptions thrown by junior quarterback Michael Rocco, whose first pick glanced off the hands of sophomore wideout Dominique Terrell.
In its 27-7 loss to then-No. 17 TCU on Sept. 22, Virginia turned the ball over four times. One came on a fumble by sophomore tailback Kevin Parks.
“When it happens during the game, you try not to get down, because you gotta have that next-play mentality and keep going,” Parks said Monday, “but after you watch the film, you’re like, `Man, that could have been the extra possession we had.’
“It’s hurtful. Trust me, it’s hurtful when you do put the rock on the ground. That’s a cardinal sin. You try not to do it, but sometimes those guys come flying in, and you gotta protect it.”
A strong pass rush can force quarterbacks into mistakes, and that can result in interceptions. Among ACC teams, Virginia is the only one not averaging at least one sack per game. The Cavaliers have four sacks in their five games.
The Louisiana Tech game, London noted, is “yet another example that the team that [forces] the most turnovers usually at the end of the game has a chance to win the game. In a close game like that, with having three and not having any, and then the penalties, as I said, those are things that definitely get you beat … The need to get turnovers and then not give them is very, very critical.
NEW DIRECTION: On his radio show Monday night, London announced that sophomore Phillip Sims, if healthy, will replace Rocco as Virginia’s starting quarterback against Duke.
Sims, who transferred to UVa from Alabama after the 2011-12 academic year, came off the bench against Louisiana Tech to throw two touchdown passes.
On a play during which he scrambled for a first down, Sims took a blow to the leg, London said, “and we still want to make sure he’s able to function and move around as well as he needs to.”
The team, which was off Monday, returns to the practice field Tuesday morning.
A junior from Lynchburg, Rocco has started 18 consecutive games for the `Hoos. Rocco is 88-for-146 passing (60.3 percent) for 1,116 yards this season, but he has thrown more interceptions (eight) than TD passes (six).
Sims has completed 28 of 46 passes (60.9 percent) for 340 yards and five TDs. He hasn’t been intercepted.
“Both of those guys are great competitors,” London said Monday night. “Michael’s been fantastic through all of this process. He understands that you have to perform and perform at a high level, and it’s just that Phillip has performed every time he’s gone in, has performed well.”
London told reporters Monday afternoon that when “the time is right or when the time presents itself that one player has exceeded the expectations and the opportunity of another player, whether it’s the quarterback or any other position, then that player warrants an opportunity to get a chance to play.”
UNACCEPTABLE: The 16 penalties called on UVa in the Louisiana Tech game included about a half-dozen personal fouls. Most of those 15-yard penalties came when Virginia, which finished with 625 yards, had the ball.
“I feel really good about where we were, how we were moving the ball, but then we self inflicted ourselves with silly penalties that set us back or put us back,” London said. “That’s on us. That’s on coaching. We’ve got to do a better job of making sure the players understand that no player is worth the penalties that they give us or cause us to have, and we’ve got to do a better job coaching.”
Personal fouls “ultimately affect the whole team,” London said, “and to get penalties like that is a selfish penalty.”
London said his players must understand that the “things that cause you to lose are things that are not acceptable, and we have to understand that being tough doesn’t mean pushing a guy after a whistle. Being tough means lining up in front of him on the snap of the ball and blocking him or getting off a block when it’s time to get that done.”
HELP COMING? A hamstring injury has limited backup tailback Clifton Richardson to one game this season, but London said he’s confident the sophomore from Newport News will be cleared to play again soon.
Richardson is listed as the No. 3 tailback on the depth chart released Monday evening. The two-deep also includes senior LaRoy Reynolds, one of the Cavaliers’ captains.
Reynolds, who starts at weakside linebacker, has missed the past two games with a broken hand that required surgery.
UP FRONT: On the offensive line, redshirt freshman Ross Burbank, who had been backing up Luke Bowanko at center, is now working at right guard and could supplant junior Sean Cascarano as the starter there, London said.
Johnson, who appeared in four games as a true freshman last year, has yet to play this season and so is still eligible to redshirt.
“We’re trying to be guarded about it,” London said Monday, “but at the same time we’re trying to play to win now, not to worry about next year for him.”