Mike Rocco: CLOSER

Michael Rocco gets ready to fire the game winner against Miami. (photo by Mike Ingalls of TheSabre.com)

Few UVA quarterbacks have taken more of a beating from the UVA fan base than Michael Rocco.  Sometimes he brings it on himself.  The passes he throws aren’t pretty, and more often than we’d like, they end up in the wrong hands.  He’s the kind of quarterback who needs a long leash.  When given it, he performs.  Shorten the leash and he tends to tighten it on his own neck.  His play earlier this season – not entirely his fault, as he was let down time and again by his offensive line – nevertheless led to his benching and, indirectly, to the quarterback platoon now employed by Mike London.

Tell Mike Rocco he’s the man, now go win a football game, though, and watch him turn into John Elway.  Last year’s slate of games gave us a pretty good idea of Rocco’s late-game magic.  Rocco directed a pair of game-winning (or game-tying, in which the game later ended in a win) drives.  He first rescued the Indiana game with a 77-yard touchdown drive and capped it with a two-point conversion to tie the game, after which the defense polished off any remaining IU resistance and grabbed a game-winning turnover.  Later in the season, Rocco took the offense a shockingly easy 75 yards against Florida State – and needed only 37 seconds to do it – for what would end up as the game-winning touchdown.  He moved the ball so efficiently that he left far too much time on the clock to settle the nerves of anxious UVA fans, but any time you can so easily carve up the vaunted Florida State defense on their home turf, few will complain.

Rocco led a similar comeback drive again this season against Penn State to stake Virginia to a 2-0 record to start the season.  But by that time, the Rocco magic was already fading; it hadn’t been an especially great game for Rocco, up until the game-winning drive, and many fans felt he had been bailed out by his tight end Jake McGee, who made a simply spectacular third-down catch, with one-hand, while being interfered with, that resulted in a 44-yard gain, a huge chunk of the drive’s yardage.  Rocco had some other nice throws during the drive, but the fans’ imaginations had already been captured by local hero Phillip Sims, and despite the win it was considered only a matter of time before Sims seized Rocco’s job.

As it turned out, it was.  The Florida State game would have to go down as Mike Rocco’s finest hour.  Rocco quarterbacked three more games, and gave way to Sims in October.  But a funny thing happened on the way to Sims’s coronation: Sims found it much harder to play quarterback when teams are gameplanning for you and you’re being asked to win the game on your own.  Having his own special teams stabbing him in the back at every opportunity didn’t help.

So Rocco returned to the field as part of a platoon.  Two games in, with the team on a mission to rescue its season and maybe, just maybe, go to a bowl, UVA found itself down ten points to Miami and unable to move the ball in the third quarter.  Enter Rocco, taking his normal turn in the two-on-two-off rotation; down two scores, two drives would be necessary this time.  Rocco smoothly engineered the first and finished it off with a beautiful throw to Darius Jennings for the touchdown.  After two three-and-outs by Miami (and two points tacked on to Miami’s total via safety) Rocco got the ball again.  The coaches decided to keep the ball with the hot hand and put the game on Rocco’s shoulders, and once again he delivered.  And again it was McGee with a circus catch, but this time thrown perfectly by Rocco to a spot where either McGee or nobody was going to come down with it.

In doing so, Rocco replaced his old finest hour with a new one.  Yes, there’s a world of difference between Florida State and Miami, playing at home and playing in hostile Doak Campbell, and so on.  There’s also a world of difference between knowing the team is yours, and being told it’s no longer yours and then yes it is but not really, and would you mind winning this game anyway?  Rocco’s consistent winner’s attitude has nullified the latter gap, and he’s cementing his place in UVA annals alongside other well-remembered quarterbacks, one finish at a time.


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Brendan’s bio: I’m just this guy … this ordinary Virginia graduate and fan who woke up one day realizing his opinions on everything UVA could no longer be contained in one space. Thus was born From Old Virginia, a labor of love where you can find obsessive opinionating on Virginia football, basketball, lacrosse, baseball, and whatever else when the mood strikes. And if that’s still not enough for you, go to the Twitster and follow @MaizeNBlueWahoo for the dumb stuff that pops into my head when I’m watching the Hoos.

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