Coach London is garnering support quickly in Charlottesville.
The Cavalier football team returned home to a warm reception from the Scott Stadium crowd Saturday afternoon. The mercury was high, as well as the numbers on the scoreboard as Virginia dealt a crushing 48-7 defeat to VMI. After a nice break following the USC loss, this game was viewed as a final tune-up before conference play begins next weekend. Lots of less-experienced players saw the field Saturday, including two brand new quarterbacks. The passing game itself took center stage, as the Keydets came prepared to stop the run up front, leaving the secondary exposed. Overall, it was an interesting day for the Cavaliers, who took time to iron out a few more wrinkles on special teams and cement their game plan before Florida State pays a visit on Oct. 2.
“I’m very happy for the team, to get a victory, put some points on the board, and get some turnovers. I thought the ones that Chase Minnifield made were very athletic plays. We wanted to shore up on our special teams aspects; we dropped a punt but we returned a kickoff for a touchdown. I can’t remember the last time we did that,” UVa coach Mike London said. “We had a couple of good punt returns and Robert Randolph did a nice job with his field goals. I told the guys that first half, first quarter we looked lethargic a little bit. We just came to life a little bit; we started doing the things I thought we needed to do to win this game.”
Special teams got a much-needed boost from Raynard Horne ‘s 87-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, which seemed to spark the Hoos. VMI scored its only touchdown in the first quarter, knotting the score at 7 all, but Horne answered immediately by taking the kickoff to the house, untouched. It was UVa’s first kickoff return for a touchdown since Marquis Weeks did it against UNC in 2004.
Chase Minnifield , he of the two athletic interceptions, had one mishap on special teams: a miscue on a punt return that caused him to fumble on the Virginia 19-yard line, setting up an unsuccessful VMI field goal attempt. He atoned for his mistake with back-to-back interceptions to start the second quarter.
On offense, it was all about the passing game. The Cavaliers combined for only 125 yards on the ground, but had 341 passing yards. VMI decided to take a more one-sided approach to defense and crowd the line of scrimmage in hopes of stopping the run. The Keydets succeeded somewhat, but that allowed Virginia to dominate through the air.
Ross Metheny was one of three UVa quarterbacks to throw a touchdown pass.
Mike Rocco was the third Virginia quarterback to see playing time on Saturday.
“When you plant your safety down in the middle and you do a lot of things to stop the run, you put your corners out there playing one on one,” London said. “We just wanted not to try to force anything, but to take what they gave us. I thought Marc and Ross and Michael Rocco did a nice job distributing the ball.”
Yes, you read that last quote correctly. Three quarterbacks saw time for Virginia this Saturday: starter Marc Verica , redshirt freshman Ross Metheny , and true freshman Michael Rocco. The three signal callers threw for five touchdowns, and Rocco had the lone interception. Verica came out of the game after the first touchdown drive of the third quarter, and Rocco and Metheny split reps for the remainder of the game. The trio combined for 341 passing yards, the program’s 13th-best outing all-time and the most since 2003 (358 yards against Virginia Tech). Verica completed 16 of 23 passes for 224 yards and a career-high 3 touchdowns to lead the way.
The point of this mini quarterback carousel was to help find a designated No. 2 guy. No quarterback on the Virginia roster other than Verica had seen time in a college game until Saturday.
“We talked about not having a quarterback that’s had any game experience, and there wasn’t a clear-cut guy over the next guy. The next best thing was to put them in a venue, put them in a game and see how, outside of practice, you put yourself in a game, and play, and make the calls, and see if you are effected or distracted by anything,” London said. “Both guys came in, and threw some touchdown passes. We’ll go back and look at this and see if one has emerged as a clear No. 2 or if it’s a case of two guys still battling.”
Ross Metheny was 4-5 for 53 yards and one touchdown pass to junior wide receiver Jared Green , who also had a big game. This was Metheny’s first collegiate touchdown and Green’s first since 2008. Metheny could barely contain his excitement about getting his first collegiate game snap.
“It was great; it was definitely a learning experience,” he said. “Anytime you get to play in a live game situation, it’s definitely beneficial to you.”
Green, who is something of a fan favorite, had 63 receiving yards; in addition to his touchdown catch, he also gave Metheny his first career completion on his first career attempt. Green showed a great ability to pick up extra yards after the catch by cutting across the field away from defenders. Green, along with Matt Snyder, showed that the Hoos have some depth at wide receiver; with Tim Smith sidelined with an ankle injury, the next two spots behind Dontrelle Inman and Kris Burd belong to Snyder and Green.
“It was awesome. It was just, breathtaking. I just feel like God has truly had his hand over my life and my career,” Green said. “Just seeing Him drop some blessings on me, and a touchdown too, was awesome. I’m excited to see what happens next, but I needed that.”
Rocco became the third quarterback to enter the game. Rocco was 4-6 for 64 yards, but had a bit of a miscue with wide receiver Ray Keys on one throw – the pass ended up finding a wide open Keydet instead as Trae Watkins made the pick.
“The receiver and I kind of read the coverage differently so I thought he was going to run one thing and he ran something else,” Rocco said. “I just trusted my eyes and made the throw, but it happens in football.”
Quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator Bill Lazor had a different view of the situation: “No, it was Michael’s fault,” he said with a smile.
Colter Phillips finally gets his very first touchdown catch.
While Rocco bobbled a bit with the one interception, he also helped provide one of the feel-good stories of the game. Rocco brought the remainder of the Scott Stadium crowd to its feet with a lofting touchdown pass to a wide-open Colter Phillips in the end zone with 4:37 remaining in the game. Phillips, who lost his father in a plane crash this summer, was denied a touchdown against Richmond and his involvement on a big trick play at USC was rendered negligent due to a poor officiating call. This was Phillips’ first career touchdown.
“I didn’t even know who was my tight end when I threw the touchdown pass and when I got up from the ground, I actually got hit and knocked down, when I got up and saw it was Colt I ran down there,” Rocco said. “It’s awesome when good things happen for your teammates, but especially Colt because he’s been through so much. It was exciting to get to celebrate.”
The Cavaliers’ celebration for their second victory of the season will have to be short-lived. This week, Virginia begins preparation for Florida State, which should be one of the tougher conference games of the year.
“We’ll celebrate this for a little bit; it’s always short-lived because we know the next opponent is a very good team,” London said. “We’re here in Charlottesville again and we’re looking forward to the challenge.”