Louisiana Tech quarterback Colby Cameron could not draw Virginia offsides on 4th-and-1 with 1:45 remaining, his team desperately clinging to a 44-38 lead. Coach Sonny Dykes called timeout, and UVA trotted its punt return team onto the field.
Dykes didn’t oblige. Punter Ryan Allen stayed on the sideline, and Cameron lined up behind center.
Virginia inserted a twelfth player and was whistled for a substitution infraction, its 16th penalty of the day.
“From a technical standpoint, they put their punt team on and we put our return team on,” said UVA coach Mike London shortly after the game. “Khalek Shepherd went to the back to receive the punt. Somewhere along the way, I guess they decided to bring their regular offense in.”
Teams are given three seconds to remove an extra defender from the field. Doug Rhoads, the ACC’s supervisor of officials, said Sunday that UVA’s twelfth man was on the field for as many as 11 seconds after the Bulldogs approached the ball.
“You have to be allowed the opportunity to substitute your correct personnel into the game,” London said. “As they brought their regular offense in, Khalek was 40-50 yards away. Normally it is the technique of the umpire to stand over the ball and allow the substitutions to take place. We ran one of our corners on the field, because their regular offense was there. But, 50 yards downfield was our punt returner, who should have been given the opportunity to leave the field. The official counted 12 players on the field, outside of the absence of knowing what’s going on with the personnel going in and out. A penalty is called. That’s the technical aspect of it, my interpretation of how it went down.”
Virginia led 24-10 in the second quarter and had crossed midfield when Sean Cascarano committed a dead-ball personal foul penalty. On the ensuing 2nd-and-18, Michael Rocco threw an interception that glanced off the hands of Dominique Terrell. Two plays later, Louisiana Tech scored the first of 34 unanswered points.
UVA’s two-touchdown lead became a 44-24 deficit in the span of 20 minutes, 15 seconds.
In relief of Rocco, Phillip Sims threw fourth-quarter touchdown passes to Jake McGee and Adrian Gamble and looked poised to complete an improbable comeback before the decisive penalty.
“It was real tough,” said the Alabama transfer. “It’s pretty much everyone’s dream to be in a situation like that: two minutes left and the chance to help your team come out with a victory. Coming into the locker room and seeing the look in our eyes, you never know what may have happened with that time left. It’s a hard pill to swallow.”
Rocco’s streak of 18 consecutive starts will likely come to an end Saturday in Durham. The embattled quarterback led his team to eight wins a season ago, but UVA is just 1-5 in its last six games against FBS competition. Rocco has thrown a league-high eight interceptions in 2012.
Virginia last lost three consecutive games in 2010, Mike London’s first season on the job. Louisiana Tech improved to 4-0, its best start since 1975.
“It’s just that the way it ended in the last two minutes with substitution infractions, you hate for that to happen,” said Sonny Dykes. “You hate to see a game end that way. We wanted to get into an open set and try to draw them offsides and they had their kick returner out and I can understand why. They assumed that we were going to punt the ball. At that point, I didn’t feel comfortable punting the ball as we were having ongoing discussions on whether to punt it or go for it. I pretty much knew we were going to go for it.”