Sept. 25, 2012
CHARLOTTESVILLE -- For the University of Virginia football team's ailing offense, Saturday will bring an excellent opportunity to get well.
In its final non-conference game of the regular season, UVa (2-2) hosts Louisiana Tech (3-0) at 3:30 p.m. at Scott Stadium. Much has been made of the Bulldogs' high-powered spread offense, and understandably so. Coach Sonny Dyke's team averages 54.7 points per game. The Bulldogs' defense, however, has been as porous as their offense has been explosive.
"People are also putting up points on them," Virginia coach Mike London noted Sunday night.
Among the 120 teams in the NCAA's Football Bowl Subdivision, Louisiana Tech ranks 77th in rushing defense (168 yards per game), 117th in pass defense (330 yards per game), 111th in scoring defense (37.7 points per game) and 115th in total defense (498 yards per game).
That may bode well for a UVa offense that, despite returning seven starters from 2011, has struggled for most of the season. London's team ranks 97th nationally in rushing offense (119.5 yards per game), 49th in passing offense (253 yards per game), 98th in scoring offense (21.8 points per game) and 86th in total offense (372.5 yards per game).
Given that Virginia ranks 86th nationally in scoring defense and that Louisiana Tech is so potent on offense, "I think we are going to have to score some points," London told reporters Monday at John Paul Jones Arena.
To keep the Bulldogs' quick-strike offense on the sideline, the Wahoos "are going to have to hang on to the ball and put some drives together," London said. "It's up to us to stay on the field and limit that, and when we get the ball score ourselves."
Junior Michael Rocco, who has started 17 straight games at quarterback for the `Hoos, has thrown more interceptions (five) than touchdown passes (four) this season. In the past two games -- one-sided losses to Georgia Tech and TCU -- Rocco is 28-for-53 passing for 269 yards and one touchdown, with four interceptions.
"Taking care of the ball is absolutely a necessity ... so we have got to pay close attention to those type of things and what's causing those type of issues," London said. "In regards to play of the quarterbacks, Michael understands that his throws, his decisions are very, very important to the success of what happens to the ball."
The outcome of the game had been effectively decided when sophomore Phillip Sims replaced Rocco in the fourth quarter Sept. 15 in Atlanta, and that was the case again Saturday in Fort Worth, Texas.
Sims, who transferred from Alabama to UVa after the 2011-12 school year, threw two touchdown passes against the Yellow Jackets -- one on the game's final play -- and one against the Horned Frogs. But he's still learning offensive coordinator Bill Lazor's playbook and system, and if a quarterback change is imminent, London didn't let on Monday.
In practice this week, London said, "we'll see how things go. But right now there is no change of strategy. Both of them, though, have to perform and allow us to be competitive and win some games."
For the season, Rocco has completed 74 of 123 passes (60.2 percent) for 838 yards. Sims is 18-for-29 passing (62.1 percent) for three TDs and no interceptions.
"We'll see how things will shake out," London said, "but right now, I'm excited about Michael having a chance to show everyone once again how he can play and perform. He understands that, that he has to."
If a player, whatever his position, isn't performing well "on a consistent basis," London said, "then there has to be consideration to move him or put someone else in there. As long as he's consistent and gives us a chance to win, then he'll play there."
In its 27-7 loss at then-No. 17 TCU, UVa was only 3 for 16 on third-down conversions. But the Cavaliers were more productive on the ground than in their previous two games, rushing for 164 yards against a stout TCU defense, and if not for some dropped passes would have finished with considerably more than 353 yards of total offense.
"I think it's just small things," sophomore wideout Darius Jennings said Saturday. "As you can see today, we were able to move the ball, we looked good in drives, but just finishing out there, that's something we're kind of having trouble with right now. We just got to put it all together at once. Get the small details down, just the connections betweens the QBs and receivers and the O-line."
"It's a little frustrating," said another sophomore wideout, Dominique Terrell, "but we're coming together. We'll be good."
Louisiana Tech coach Sonny Dykes has scouted the Cavaliers on tape, and "the one thing that people have done against them is try to make them throw the football," he told reporters Monday in Ruston, La.
"They have done it [well] at times. They have probably not been as consistent as they want to be in the passing game, but they dropped a couple of passes against TCU that would have been big plays."
"The capability is there. Both of the quarterbacks have good arms. They can throw the ball. They have fast receivers that have good size. They just have not gotten on track yet. We just have to make sure they do not get on track against us, because they are capable of being a very good offensive football team."
The Cavaliers "are going to try to come at us, I am sure, and run over us," Dykes said. "They are big and physical up front, and we are going to need to be able to hold up in the run game.
"We need to force them to throw. That means we are stopping the run."
Louisiana Tech is coming off a 52-24 win at Illinois, a victory that came at a steep price. In the fourth quarter, the Bulldogs lost their No. 1 tailback, Tevin King, to a season-ending knee injury.
Smith, who has been slowed by a hamstring injury, has seven catches for 108 yards this season. He didn't have any receptions at TCU, but he ran well at practice Sunday, London said, and is a critical part of UVa's vertical passing game.
"So having that kind of consistent skill level is something that we need," London said, "and hopefully he's back to being 100 percent, because he looked like it yesterday."
From an offense that averaged 399.8 yards per game in 2011, UVa lost four starters: wideout Kris Burd, fullback Max Milien, All-America offensive guard Austin Pasztor and center Anthony Mihota. One of the new starters is Sean Cascarano, a redshirt junior from Glenview, Ill. Cascarano took over at right guard for classmate Luke Bowanko, who moved inside to replace Mihota at center.
Cascarano was one of the four players who stopped by JPJ for interviews Monday, and he fielded several questions about the offense's struggles.
"I don't think anyone's panicking," Cascarano said. "I don't think anyone feels like we're deficient, or whatever, to get the job done Saturday. We're just going to prepare a little bit harder this week."
Statistically, Cascarano knows, Louisiana Tech ranks among the nation's weakest teams defensively. But he also knows the Bulldogs have forced 10 turnovers in three games -- UVa, by comparison, has forced two in four games -- and allowed only seven second-half points against Illinois.
"We were watching the film last night," Cascarano said, "and that had our full attention, that they were able to go into Champaign and beat a pretty good team, a Big Ten team. We know what they're capable of. They're a big, fast defense, so we're not taking them lightly at all."
For the `Hoos, this will be their first game at Scott Stadium since Sept. 8, when they edged Penn State 17-16.
"It's good to be at home, good to not have to get in a plane on Friday and after the game, always good to be out in front of our fans," Cascarano said, "but it turns out it's just football on Saturdays. Everything in between the white lines is the same."
One thing that won't be the same Saturday is the Cavaliers' attire. In honor of their 1968 team and former great Frank Quayle, the ACC player of the year that season, the `Hoos will wear throwback uniforms against Louisiana Tech.
"I think they look great," Cascarano said. "I'm excited to put `em on on Saturday."
No surprise there. Cascarano is a history major. "Throwbacks are my thing," he said, laughing.
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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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