CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA — There is no quarterback controversy at Virginia. None whatsoever.
That doesn’t mean Michael Rocco has the job secured for the rest of the season, because if the read on Phillip Sims’ breathtaking potential is accurate, he will eventually learn the playbook enough to justify a more viable shot, especially if Rocco struggles.
Rocco struggled some in Saturday’s 17-16 victory over Penn State at Scott Stadium. Enough so that coach Mike London replaced him with Sims with 1:22 remaining in the third quarter. In Rocco’s previous possession, he fumbled the snap, giving Penn State the ball at UVa’s 29-yard-line, its fourth worst starting position of the day.
The other three were also courtesy of turnovers, one of which was an interception thrown by Rocco in the first half. Redshirt juniors can’t get away with making such mistakes for long, and that had to go through London’s mind when he decided to give Sims a chance.
Sims transferred this past offseason from Alabama, where he nearly won the starting job a year ago. He applied to the NCAA for an eligibility waiver because a parent is ill and he wanted to come back to his home state to be closer. The NCAA allowed it.
But Sims looked like anything but his reputation during the six snaps he took. He was tentative — probably tight — and closed his second series with a fumble that Penn State recovered at UVa’s 17. The Nittany Lions converted their only field goal of the day several plays later to take a 16-10 lead.
Rocco came back in on the ensuing possession, and 12 plays and 86 yards later, Virginia was ahead 17-16.
“No player likes to come out of the game,” London said. “They want to play, particularly when you’re competitive, and Michael is competitive… At that point in time, right after the mucked snap, I just wanted him to get on the sideline and look at the game a little bit… And what a confidence booster for a guy like that to manage the team and manage the win.”
The final drive immediately found UVa in a 3rd-and-5 situation following a sack of Rocco. But a 9-yard pass to tailback Perry Jones kept alive the drive. Then, on 3rd-and 16 from its own 22 and following yet another Virginia penalty (10 on the day for the Wahoos), Rocco hooked up with tight end Jake McGee for 44 yards.
“Rocco scrambled out of the pocket, he put it up, and I somehow came down with it,” McGee said of the long play that put UVa in position to win. “I don’t know how I came down with it, but it stuck.”
Penn State was flagged for pass interference, but obviously London declined and the Hoos were in business. Six plays later Rocco found McGee just inside the end zone setting off an eruption in Scott Stadium.
It doesn’t get any easier for the Cavaliers. They head to Georgia Tech next weekend and then to nationally ranked TCU. If Rocco plays well in those games he may further secure the job. If not, Sims will probably get a chance to play.
But for now, it’s Rocco, and given the circumstances surrounding the game-winning drive, that makes sense.