Virginia hopes to keep momentum
Just about everybody buried Virginia after the Hoos went into their bye week on a six-game losing streak.
Too many turnovers. Too many penalties. Too much inconsistency.
But a strange thing happened at the bottom of the heap. Virginia started winning. The same team that had trouble scoring points and holding onto the football has combined for 78 points and omore than 900 yards of offense in the past two weeks, with just two turnovers. The two-game points spree is the most Virginia has scored in consecutive games against FBS opponents in seven years.
The wins have not come against the dregs of the league, either. NC State and Miami had winning records going into their games, but Virginia (4-6, 2-4) found ways to win both. Now comes another test against another winning team -- Coastal Division rival North Carolina (6-4, 3-3) tonight at 7:30 p.m. on ESPN.
“A lot of people wrote us off," said Virginia quarterback Michael Rocco, a huge reason why Virginia has seemingly turned its season around. "A six-game losing streak doesn’t look promising, but we really had a confidence among our guys and a maturity to just keep pressing on. Coach (Mike) London emphasized it in our meetings and everything we do, just that we’re a couple plays away -- a couple less turnovers away, a couple forced turnovers away, a couple of big plays away from winning the close games we lost.
"We just buckled down and had a maturity not to give up, keep pressing on. That’s what we’ve done the past couple of weeks, and that’s what we’ll continue to do to hopefully win out.”
London unveiled a two-quarterback system against NC State, playing both Rocco and Phillip Sims. Generally speaking, teams that play two quarterbacks often have no answers at quarterback. But Virginia is 2-0 with both playing, though Rocco really emerged in the win against Miami last week. He threw four touchdown passes, including the game-winner with six seconds remaining.
Still, London has no plans to do anything differently against the Tar Heels -- who are coming into the game without the momentum Virginia has. North Carolina gave up 68 points last week in a loss to Georgia Tech and has now had a short work week to fix its mistakes and get ready for another game.
But perhaps the short week benefits North Carolina.
"You have a bad taste in your mouth, you only have a few days and hopefully you get that bad taste out of your mouth so you don't have to wait all the way until Saturday," UNC coach Larry Fedora said. "I think our guys have handled the short week well in practices, the way they have done it, gone about it; their maturity, the way we have wanted to have energy out there, but also be able to take something off of them. But I guess the real proof is going to be how we play Thursday night."
The obvious player storyline involves North Carolina running back Giovani Bernard, who ranks No. 3 in the nation in all-purpose yards. Virginia had major problems trying to stop Miami all-purpose runner Duke Johnson last week. Johnson had 368 all-purpose yards against the Hoos, fourth most in ACC history and best all-time for a freshman. Johnson ranks No. 9 in the nation in all-purpose yards.
Since 1940, the winning team in this series has had the most yards rushing 55 of 69 times, with one game featuring the same yardage for both.
If Virginia can find a way to slow Bernard down, the Hoos will have a great shot to keep their bowl hopes alive -- just weeks after a 2-6 start to the season had many wondering just what had happened to this team.
"I know every team in America could say that they’ve worked hard, and they want to for their seniors, but this group of seniors has really been special to us," Rocco said the prospects of going bowling. "They helped us turn the program around last year and did a great job at that, and now we’ve kind of overcome adversity and continue to work. We’re taking it one game at a time, but getting to that bowl game would be awesome for our seniors."