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STEVE DESHAZO: Ugly victory leaves a sour taste in Cavaliers’ mouths

CHARLOTTESVILLE—Winning is the ultimate deodorant. That’s why all but the most spoiled of Virginia football fans have to savor any victory over Penn State—even Saturday’s 17–16 squeaker against a shell of the Nittany Lions we’ve come to know.

But Jerry Sandusky’s lawyers would make a far better case against the Cavaliers being an elite team at the moment than defending their client, whose crimes put the Lions in a hole it’ll take them close to a decade to escape.

The Cavaliers’ escape Saturday actually raised more questions than it answered. Among them:

  • How secure is quarterback Michael Rocco’s job?
  • What happened to Virginia’s vaunted running game?
  • Can a young defense that bent but didn’t break Saturday fare better against future, more talented opponents?

    “Today was ugly,” offensive coordinator Bill Lazor said. “It was amazing that, as a team, we found a way to win it.”

    The first thank-you note should go to former Penn State kicker Anthony Fera, who exploited the NCAA’s get-out-of-jail free card and transferred to Texas, leaving sophomore Sam Ficklen with the job. Ficklen missed three makable field goal attempts (including a 42-yarder on the game’s final play) and saw the point-after blocked with what coach Bill O’Brien called “a low kick.”

    But from Virginia’s perspective, there were more ifs. If third-team tight end Jake McGee hadn’t emerged as Rocco’s new go-to guy; if freshman cornerback Maurice Canaday didn’t make a fingernail tackle on Allen Robinson on Penn State’s final drive; and maybe if a rain shower hadn’t made Ficklen’s final attempt so difficult, Cavalier Nation wouldn’t be so happy.

    If the Cavaliers commit four turnovers and 70 yards’ worth of penalties and gain just 32 yards on the ground next Saturday at Georgia Tech, the outcome will be decidedly different. With three solid running backs and a pair of All-America candidates at tackle, Virginia’s offense shouldn’t be sputtering.

    “It’s embarrassing as an offensive coordinator, all the mistakes that came up—things I thought we’d be beyond,” Lazor said.

    Lazor also thought he was well past quarterback controversies, after last season’s ill-conceived flip–flopping between Rocco and David Watford. Rocco won the job and led the Cavaliers to the Chick–fil–A Bowl, but now he’s feeling the breath of Alabama transfer Phillip Sims on his neck.

    On Saturday, coach Mike London inserted Sims for two unproductive series that ended with a punt and a lost fumble by Sims. Rocco returned to lead the Cavaliers on a game-winning 86-yard touchdown drive in the final minutes, but afterward, there seemed to be confusion about the plan.

    London said he had planned to remove Rocco temporarily, claiming: “I just thought it was a good opportunity for him to see what was happening [from] the sideline. Then he came back in and did a nice job.”

    That seemed to be news to Rocco, whose diplomatic responses included: “I tried to lead from the sideline” and “I trust my coaches.”

    London has made recruiting Tidewater’s talent lode a priority, and that’s home for both Sims and Watford. London will walk a fine line in trying to win and placate the “757” players and coaches. Sims is more athletic and has a stronger arm, but Rocco is his best bet to win at the moment.

    But at the very least, London needs to communicate his game plan better to all parties involved: Rocco, Sims and Lazor, who seemed in the dark as well, but deferred to his boss.

    At 2–0, London doesn’t have to apologize to anyone. As long as Virginia keeps winning, the grumbling will stay minimal. A couple of losses, though, can change everything—and not for the better

    Steve DeShazo: 540/374-5443

    sdeshazo@freelancestar.com

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