Cavaliers welcome wounded Lions
Nationally televised contest pits thriving Virginia against struggling Penn State at Scott Stadium
After securing a comfortable 43-19 victory against Richmond, Virginia head coach Mike London and his players are ready for the team’s matchup Saturday with traditional Big Ten powerhouse Penn State at Scott Stadium.
Although riddled with minor miscues, the performance of the Cavaliers (1-0, 0-0 ACC) highlighted to the rest of the ACC that London’s physically imposing squad could be priming for more success after an 8-5 campaign in 2011.
“Coach London has done an excellent job of putting together his style of team,” Penn State coach Bill O’Brien said. “They’ve got big, strong athletes that are a physical football team.”
One of the major highlights of the victory against the Spiders involved the play of junior quarterback Michael Rocco, who won the starting job despite the arrival of Alabama transfer junior Phillip Sims. Against a Richmond defense committing most of its defenders to stopping the run, Rocco exploited the soft-pass coverage to finish 25-for-37 for 311 yards.
“I had good things and bad things,” Rocco said. “My job ultimately is to score points and win the game. I’m excited about the victory, but I have things I need to improve on.”
Rocco’s talented corps of receivers helped his cause. The receivers combined for 247 of Virginia’s 361 passing yards and turned several short passes into lengthy gains, punctuated by sophomore Darius Jennings’ 51-yard catch-and-run touchdown.
“I was fairly impressed with the receivers and the way that they played, the way that they blocked, a lot of things,” London said. “They have the ability to take it the distance.”
Also looking to continue its impressive play is the Virginia defense, which was able to hold the Spiders to 28 yards on the ground on 21 carries. The front seven held their gaps and played their lanes effectively throughout the contest, allowing just one run to make it past the first level and into the secondary.
“There’s about five plays that accounted for about 43 percent of their yards,” London said. “You take away those five plays and I thought the defense played really well.”
The big men up front also pressured Richmond quarterback John Laub throughout the game, despite failing to record a sack.
“Although there were no sacks, there were several hits or pressures that resulted in incomplete passes or balls knocked down,” London said.
The Nittany Lions (0-1, 0-0 Big Ten) were one of college football’s top tier programs under late coach Joe Paterno but are looking to bounce back this week after losing their home opener 24-14 to the Ohio Bobcats.
After several key players transferred to other schools during a calamitous offseason, most predict the embattled Penn State football team to drop in the Big Ten rankings. And the Nittany Lions showed why in their matchup against Ohio last weekend: The squad turned the ball over three times while allowing Bobcats quarterback Tyler Tettleton to throw for more than 300 yards through the air.
“At the end of the day, we’ve got to go out there and execute better.” O’Brien said. “We’ve got to put our players in better positions, and then our guys need to go out there and make plays.”
But London doesn’t expect the Penn State game to be an easy win. The Nittany Lions retained over 90 percent of their roster, including standout seniors quarterback Matt McGloin and outside linebacker Gerald Hodges, and are more than capable of punishing Virginia for any complacency.
“I see a team that, outside of all the other stuff that’s going on at home, played hard [and] didn’t come up with the win,” London said. “But I know that [O’Brien] will have them ready to travel and play against us.”
Even though the teams seem to be heading in opposite directions, London knows his team will need a much stronger performance than last weekend if they hope to defeat a still-formidable out-of-conference nemesis.
“We’ll have to play better than we did Saturday in order to be successful.” London said. “We’re satisfied with the win, but we’re not completely satisfied until we play as near a perfect game as possible.”
The game kicks off Saturday at noon and will be broadcast on ABC to a national audience.