Through five games in 2012, the Virginia football team has straddled the line that separates the ease of familiarity from the uncertainty of potential. When former five-star QB Phillip Sims transferred from Alabama, everyone knew there would be drama. No matter that the Cavaliers were fresh off of an 8-5 season complete with a bowl appearance, or that junior QB Michael Rocco was returning to the helm after closing the season with a 6-2 record. With this infusion of significant talent, the competition for the quarterback position was once again on.
As any Cavalier fan knows, it was Rocco who emerged as the Week 1 starter. Honestly, this didn’t come as much of a surprise – Sims hadn’t had but a month to pore over the playbook. Though both quarterbacks received time through the first four weeks – with Rocco starting each contest – there wasn’t a shining moment of clarity either way. Quarterback changes are rarely made on whims – a rocky ship is better than a sunken ship, after all – so although Virginia’s record stood at 2-2, no switch was made.
But in Week 5, the moment of clarity finally occurred.
In the first half against Louisiana Tech, the Cavalier offense was clicking. With Rocco running the show, the offense racked up 386 first half yards – 265 of those coming through. But in spite of all of those yards – and the 24 points on the scoreboard – there was still something missing to me. On several occasions, Rocco forced the ball to a favorite target of his, missing a downfield receiver with a clear edge on his defender. Rocco threw one interception off the hands of receiver Dominique Terrell, but had several other throws that were bobbled by Bulldog defenders.
Here is the dichotomy of Rocco: he knows the offense better than any other QB on the roster, but is limited in his throw-making ability. He seems to be aware of his arm strength shortcomings, and thus often predetermines his routes, throwing the ball to favorite receivers or patterns before truly surveying the defense. This blemish reared its ugly head in the second half, as throw after throw ended up in or near the hands of Louisiana Tech defenders. After Rocco’s third interception led to a touchdown and a 41-24 lead for the Bulldogs, the Lynchburg native was yanked and Sims was given the reins to the offense.
The change was dramatic. There is no doubt that Sims still has a lot of growing to do within this offense, but you can’t argue against his late-game production. In three drives, Sims lead the Cavaliers to two touchdowns and a missed field goal, throwing for 166 yards and two touchdowns. The most wow-worthy play came when Sims fired a bomb that traveled 50 yards through the air to Darius Jennings – and completed it. If not for a boneheaded penalty that prevented the Cavaliers from getting the ball back one last time, Sims would have had a chance to drive for the win with 1:45 left in the fourth quarter. The coaches have made it clear that Sims is still catching up to Rocco in understanding the depths of the ‘Hoos playbook, but he is clearly ahead of the curve in making plays.
So here comes my terrible analogy. Sports video games often include a feature called “simulation.” It is certainly redundant to include such a feature in a medium of entertainment that is in itself a simulation of real life, but it is a handy one nonetheless. For the uninformed, “simulating” allows the user to tap into the realm of probabilities – if you think that your team will win regardless of whether you have control of every pass or blitz, you save yourself the effort and hit good old “sim.”
Through the first five games, UVa has tried to manage the outcome, to control the game with someone who they know the ability of – Rocco. It’s time to throw caution to the wind and place the ball in the hands of the player who, though still in the learning process, shows the talent and ability to take this team to another level – Phillip Sims. It’s time to start ‘Simming,’ and in interviews this week, it looks like Virginia coach Mike London has finally agreed, saying that “If (Sim)’s 100-percent ready to go, he will get snaps with the first unit.”