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ACC Football: Cavaliers declaw Nittany Lions’ best effort
BY TAFT COGHILL JR.
CHARLOTTESVILLE—University of Virginia football coach Mike London knew when Penn State visited Scott Stadium on Saturday, the focus would be mostly on the Nittany Lions.
London understood the national television cameras were on hand because of the scrutiny that program is under following the Jerry Sandusky child sex-abuse scandal.
Penn State supporters were well-represented among the 56,087 spectators present for this nonconference contest.
The big-game atmosphere made the Cavaliers a bit uneasy initially, but they eventually settled down and held on for a thrilling 17–16 victory.
“Kind of early, it did get to us,” Virginia sophomore wide receiver Darius Jennings said of the hoopla surrounding the game. “We weren’t as focused as we would’ve liked.”
The Cavaliers (2–0) committed four turnovers and changed quarterbacks late in the third quarter.
But junior quarterback Michael Rocco returned to direct an 86-yard game-winning touchdown drive. Rocco punctuated the march with a 6-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Jake McGee with one minute, 28 seconds remaining.
McGee, a sophomore tight end, also had a leaping 44-yard reception on third-and-16 to keep the drive alive.
“If he didn’t make that catch,” London said, “game’s probably over.”
The Cavaliers’ offense delivered on the final drive. But their defense was consistent throughout the game. It allowed Penn State (0–2) -14 total yards and just three points after the turnovers, all of which occurred deep in Virginia territory.
It also helped that Penn State kicker Sam Ficken missed four field goals, including the potential 42-yard game-winner with no time remaining. Ficken also had an extra point blocked by linebacker Henry Coley.
“I think throughout the game our rush on field goal block was just really good and kind of disrupted him,” Virginia linebacker Steve Greer said of Ficken’s struggles. “Henry had a huge block, so he was kind of frazzled and we knew we had to come after him.”
The Cavaliers appeared to be shaken at times, as well.
Rocco was benched following a botched third-quarter snap that was recovered by Penn State’s Gerald Hodges.
Rocco had previously thrown an interception to defensive lineman Jordan Hill, so London thought he needed to watch some action from the sideline.
“There was no ‘You’re going out because you’re bad,’” London said of the decision to remove Rocco with the Cavaliers nursing a 10–7 lead. “It was another way to give a guy some reps and allow Mike to see what’s going on.”
However, backup Phillip Sims didn’t fare much better. The Alabama transfer completed 2 of 3 passes for five yards and was replaced after he was sacked and lost a fumble early in the fourth quarter.
London said Rocco’s turnovers gave him “a sense of urgency to make a change,” but added that the signal-caller should have more confidence after leading the game-winning drive.
Still, Virginia offensive coordinator Bill Lazor said Rocco, who split time with David Watford early last season, may never totally wrap up the position.
Rocco said the lack of job security is “just another thing I have to overcome, but my teammates rally around me.”
“I was told a long time ago by a wise football person that we all rent these seats,” Lazor said. “I’m not nailed down. No one’s nailed down. We all rent these seats. We’re evaluated every day. It’s part of what makes it fun. It’s part of what gives you butterflies.”
The Cavaliers had their share of nervous moments on Saturday. Tight end Paul Freedman lost a fumble on Virginia’s first play from scrimmage.
The Cavaliers were trailing 7–0 at the time, but Greer (15 tackles, two sacks) sacked Penn State quarterback Matt McGloin for a loss of 10 yards and Ficken misfired on a 40-yard attempt. It was a common scene for Nittany Lions coach Bill O’Brien.
“It’s never always about the kicker,” O’Brien said. “The kicker is always the one to get blamed, but it’s the whole operation: the snap, the hold, the kick. We have to take a look at that.”
The Cavaliers have some questions of their own entering their Atlantic Coast Conference opener at Georgia Tech on Saturday.
Lazor said Rocco is still the starting quarterback, but Virginia knows another performance like Saturday’s could lead to losses as the competition gets tougher.
“We weren’t clicking on all cylinders,” London said. “But it was enough to eke out a win.”
Penn State 7 0 0 9 — 16
Virginia 0 3 7 7 — 17
PSU—Carter 8 pass from McGloin (Ficken kick), 8:33.
UVa—FG Jarrett 46, 3:56.
UVa—Mathis 1 pass from Rocco (Jarrett kick), 9:22.
PSU—Robinson 30 pass from McGloin (kick failed), 13:10.
PSU—FG Ficken 32, 10:55.
UVa—McGee 6 pass from Rocco (Jarrett kick), 1:28.
First downs 19 14
Rushes-yards 42-121 25-32
Passing 209 263
Comp-Att-Int 21-43-0 23-36-1
Return Yards 13 0
Punts-Avg. 3-41.7 4-42.5
Fumbles-Lost 0-0 3-3
Penalties-Yards 3-24 10-70
Time of Possession 31:47 28:13
RUSHING—Penn St., Day 18-47, Dukes 10-30, Carson 1-19, Bench 3-18, Zordich 2-5, McGloin 4-3, Zwinak 3-2, Team 1-(minus 3). Virginia, Parks 9-26, P.Jones 8-14, Rocco 6-2, P.Sims 1-(minus 4), Team 1-(minus 6).
PASSING—Penn St., McGloin 19-35-0-197, Bench 2-7-0-12, Team 0-1-0-0. Virginia, Rocco 21-33-1-258, P.Sims 2-3-0-5.
RECEIVING—Penn St., Robinson 10-89, Carter 4-33, Kenney 3-50, Day 1-17, Kersey 1-9, Lehman 1-7, Zwinak 1-4. Virginia, Jennings 5-68, McGee 4-99, P.Jones 4-14, Terrell 2-23, Parks 2-20, Scott 2-14, Ti.Smith 1-12, Freedman 1-10, Swanson 1-2, Mathis 1-1.
Taft Coghill Jr.: 540/374-5526