Sept. 2, 2012
CHARLOTTESVILLE - The University of Virginia football team piled up 545 yards and scored five touchdowns Saturday, with no turnovers. Yet no one associated with the team seemed entirely satisfied with the offense's performance against the Richmond Spiders.
That's an indication, perhaps, of how far the Cavaliers have come since Mike London took over as head coach after the 2009 season. The Cavaliers, 4-8 in 2010, improved to 8-5 last year. They're 1-0 this season after crushing UR 43-19 before 50,081 fans on a brutally humid day at Scott Stadium.
"For the most part  yards is an accomplishment," London said, "but we have a long ways to go."
Offensive coordinator Bill Lazor said: "I think it's a good start, and I expect us to make a huge improvement now that we've played a game."
The Wahoos scored the first 22 points Saturday - all in the first 24 minutes - to spoil Danny Rocco's debut as the Spiders' head coach. Rocco, as has been well-chronicled, is an uncle of UVa quarterback Michael Rocco and a former UVa assistant.
"We got outplayed today by a really good football team," Danny Rocco said.
Michael Rocco, in his 14th straight start for the `Hoos, completed 25 of 37 passes for 311 yards - one shy of his career high - and one touchdown, and he wasn't intercepted.
"Mike knows what he's doing back there," Danny Rocco said. "He understands the offense, he makes good decisions, he distributes the ball, and he didn't make any significant errors."
True, but London and Lazor believe Rocco, a junior from Lynchburg, can play better.
"That's what we're aiming for, and the great thing about Mike is he is setting that same standard for himself," Lazor said.
Rocco said: "There were times when I did a good job managing downfield throws and intermediate routes and throwing a check-down, not forcing balls down the field. But then there were times that I felt I might have forced the ball down the field when I could have just thrown a check-down or an intermediate route. Football's an up-and-down game. You just gotta know when to balance those things."
The game lasted 3 hours and 22 minutes and seemed interminable at times, and many fans had left by the end of the third quarter. Those who remained saw the much-anticipated UVa debut of Phillip Sims, one of the most productive quarterbacks in Virginia High School League history.
Sims is a graduate of Chesapeake's Oscar Smith High, where he played with Tim Smith and Perry Jones. He rejoined Smith and Jones this summer after transferring to UVa from Alabama, where he was the No. 2 QB on the nation's No. 1 team last season.
With the score 36-12, Sims entered the game with 12:07 remaining Saturday, and he didn't disappoint. The 6-2, 215-pound sophomore completed 5 of 6 passes for 50 yards.
"It's not perfect, but it's pretty good," Sims said, smiling.
Lazor said: "I think Phillip is right on track. I think it's remarkable how much he's picked up in the short amount of time he's practiced with us. I was really happy that the game situation was such that he could go in. We just tried to run our normal offense when he was in there. I wanted to make sure he had some opportunities to throw the ball a little bit, so he could kind of get back in the rhythm. He hasn't played that much varsity college football."
Eight Cavaliers had at least two receptions apiece, led by Smith, a junior who caught six passes for 96 yards. Darius Jennings, one of 12 true freshmen to play for UVa in 2011, had five catches for 84 yards Saturday - both career highs.
Jennings' most memorable play was a 51-yard touchdown midway through the first quarter. He caught a short pass from Rocco, faked out a defender and sprinted 45 yards down the UR sideline, breaking another tackle attempt at the 20 on his way to the end zone.
That play was "indicative of his speed and why we gotta get the ball out there to guys like him," London said.
Sophomore tight end Jake McGee, best known in 2011 for his special-teams work, caught two passes for 23 yards. His first college reception, a one-handed grab in front of the Richmond sideline, brought UVa fans to their feet.
Midway through the second quarter, the right-handed McGee reached up with his left hand and, while falling to the turf, came down with a pass that appeared to have been overthrown by Rocco. The play gained 17 yards.
"Wow," London said. "I thought the ball was going out of bounds. That's the kind of catch he's been making in practices, too, and obviously having a tight end like that, having a weapon like that is important. He just warranted the opportunity to catch many more balls because of that spectacular catch."
Apprised of London's comments, McGee smiled. "Whatever Coach London thinks, I'm 100 percent behind," he said. "But I don't mind having more coming my way."
McGee, who also starred in basketball at Collegiate School in Richmond, made another one-handed catch in practice during the week, that time in full stride.
"It just all happens," McGee said. "It's not like a thought-out process. My hands go, and it just luckily worked out."
That the Spiders scored three touchdowns - the last with 35 seconds left - didn't thrill the Cavaliers' coaching staff. Overall, though, UVa's defense played well, holding UR to 266 yards, only 28 of which came on the ground.
UR's backup quarterback, Michael Strauss, who began his college career at UVa, avoided the rush of outside linebacker LaRoy Reynolds and threw a 3-yard touchdown pass with 2:55 left in the first half.
"I think we kind of let the pedal up a little bit, maybe at the end of the second quarter and in the middle of the third," UVa defensive end Billy Schautz said. "There's definitely plenty to improve on, you always have to get better, but I think we played really well, especially the front seven."
For Schautz, a fifth-year senior, the game was his first since Nov. 19, when he suffered a horrific leg injury against Florida State.
"I was so excited to be back out there," Schautz said. "I was really anxious in the locker room today. I was very jittery. I couldn't get it all out, all the emotion. Coach allowed me to hold the American flag when we came out, and that got me really excited. After that first hit, after that first play, all the jitters and anxiety goes away, and you're just playing football again."
Virginia starts two seniors (Schautz and tackle Will Hill) on the line and two seniors (Reynolds and Steve Greer) at linebacker. The secondary isn't nearly as experienced, and Schautz said the front seven must "do a better job of giving our secondary a break, putting more pressure on the quarterback."
Defensive coordinator Jim Reid started four sophomores in the secondary: Demetrious Nicholson and Drequan Hoskey at cornerback, Brandon Phelps and Anthony Harris at safety. Of those four, only Nicholson played a significant role on the defense last year.
"I felt OK about them," London said Saturday night. "Sometimes when you're out there and the stage lights are on, you gotta be able to make the calls and your hand signals, you gotta be demonstrative with your voice and with your gestures, because that's part of the communication. And sometimes you're out there and you're playing, you lose a little of that because of the game itself.
"They're going to have to play their way into being experienced players. It is what it is right now, but I think we'll get better there. I thought we should have had our hands on a couple balls, but that's one of the things when you have young players: They just have to play. There's no other magic potion for it, and I think as the season goes on, as their learning curve increases, I think they'll become better players."
Nine true freshmen played against UR: wide receivers Canaan Severin and Adrian Gamble, defensive ends Eli Harold, Mike Moore and Trent Corney, linebackers Demeitre Brim and Kwontie Moore, cornerback Maurice Canady and safety Anthony Cooper.
"Early on, some of them had the deer-in-the-headlights look, it's just natural," London said. "But as the game went on, a lot of them had a chance to play and get their feet wet, and now it's show time."
The player of the game might have been UVa sophomore Khalek Shepherd. In 2011, Shepherd was used primarily on kickoff returns, and against Richmond he ran back two for 90 yards. But he also returned punts - two for 9 yards - and, at tailback, carried 10 times for 52 yards and a touchdown.
With No. 3 tailback Clifton Richardson out with a minor injury, Shepherd got more time on offense, and he capitalized on the opportunity.
"It's another guy, another weapon that you hope to use and find a way to get him the ball as well," London said. "That's the good thing about our running back situation. Those guys all cheer for each other. There's no selfish attitude among them, so we got a chance to see Khalek do his thing tonight."
Shepherd had more success running the ball than his team as a whole. Take away the 22-yard gain by reserve fullback LoVanté Battle on the game's final play, and Virginia gained 162 yards on 41 carries.
"We threw the ball around a little bit, made some good catches, some big catches down the field," London said, "but I'm more concerned with making sure we establish the type of running game that we need, particularly these short-yardage situations."
Senior Perry Jones rushed 14 times for 52 yards and a score, and sophomore Kevin Parks added 49 yards and two TDs on 14 carries. But on fourth-and-1 from the UR 20, Parks was stopped shy of the first-down marker early in the third quarter, and the Cavaliers' offensive line never dominated in the running game Saturday.
"We're all going to get together, watch this film [Sunday], be our harshest critics and learn from it," Parks said, "learn from our mistakes."
STRONG START: The unit that calls itself Team Kick excelled Saturday. Redshirt freshman Ian Frye booted five kickoffs into the end zone for touchbacks. It was also the college debut of sophomore Alec Vozenilek, who averaged 41.3 yards on his three punts.
Finally, junior Drew Jarrett, in his first appearance for UVa since 2009, was 5 for 5 on extra points and 2 for 2 on field goals, connecting from 45 and 23 yards.
"They were the thing that caused the greatest concern going in, but they performed well," London said.
LEARNING PROCESS: Sims says he's becoming increasingly comfortable with Lazor's playbook. But it hasn't been easy.
"You come to a new offense and speak a new language, you don't see what's going to happen before it happens," Sims said. "You're at the line and you're like, `All right, now where's my hitch? Where's my slant?' You're trying to guess and trying to figure it out on the go, and it makes it hard when you've got bullets flying at you.
"The first week is definitely the hardest, but once you start picturing it, you see it again, you feel like yourself again, you feel you can go out and make the plays that you're capable of making and you know you can make.
"Once you get past the first week, everything becomes a lot easier. You feel like you're human again, instead of going out and speaking a foreign language."
UP NEXT: At noon Saturday, UVa hosts Penn State (0-1) at Scott Stadium in a game that ABC will televise. The Nittany Lions are dealing with NCAA sanctions and aren't likely to contend for any titles this season, but they're still one of the sport's biggest names.
"Can't wait for that game," Schautz said.
Bill O'Brien's debut as the Nittany Lions' coach did not go well Saturday afternoon. Ohio University came into State College, Pa., and rallied to beat Penn State 24-14.
The Nittany Lions have not played at Scott Stadium since Dec. 1, 2001, when they lost 20-14 to the `Hoos. In 2002, Penn State avenged that loss, whipping UVa 35-14 at Beaver Stadium.
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A 1985 graduate of UVA, White worked at the Richmond Times-Dispatch until July 2009. He was honored six times as the state's Sportswriter of the Year.
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