The Ugly, Beautiful Truth
While the rest of the 56,087 present in Scott Stadium stood transfixed by the rain-sprinkled figure of Penn State kicker Sam Ficken, Virginia coach Mike London averted his eyes.
“I don’t know if I watched it, to tell you the truth,” the weary but contented coach said of Ficken’s game-ending miss from 42 yards away.
From a pure football standpoint, it’s remarkable that anyone, much less London, could bear another second of a calamitously sloppy game. Billed as a marquee matchup on a national stage between an ascending ACC power and an iconic program thirsty for some semblance of redemption, Virginia’s 17-16 “victory” rather quickly devolved into a comedy of errors worthy of a “Three Stooges” skit. Expecting a more polished brand of football compared to the always-jittery opening weekend, spectators instead cringed through stumbles, fumbles and execution with which even poor Savannah St. could find fault.
“We are just lucky to come out with a win in that situation,” Virginia sophomore safety Anthony Harris© said. “Mistakes are going to come, but you just try to limit them in the best way you can.”
No, nobody got his money’s worth from this highly hyped Penn State showdown. What we got instead is far more valuable: a genuine human drama that reinforced everything we truly love about college football.
An analysis of how this “bad” football game doubles as an instant classic and testament to the inherent goodness of college football must necessarily begin at the end.
The Nittany Lions were winding up for the deathblow, up 16-10 with a mere five minutes left and squeezing the remaining enthusiasm out of an already exasperated home crowd. In tune with how the afternoon had proceeded, junior quarterback Michael Rocco — freshly reinserted into the lineup after Philip Sims flopped worse than an M. Night Shyamalan movie during his two-drive cameo — burned his team’s precious final timeout. Virginia faced a third-and-16 and its last chance to steal a game in which it committed four turnovers, 10 penalties and countless crimes against basic football common sense. Immediately, the Penn State pass rush chased Rocco out of the pocket and into a desperate heave down field.
By now, the entire school knows that heave incredulously settled in between the arm and shoulder of double-covered sophomore tight end Jake McGee. McGee’s catch, coupled with his subsequent go-ahead touchdown grab with 1:28 remaining, illustrated the beauty of college football when the action breaks from the expected script.
No playbooks lists “dangerous 44-yard jump balls to the third- or fourth-string tight end” as a viable option. In fact, third-string tight ends barely even play, much less snag four balls for 99 yards and emerge as potent offensive threats. And no quarterback dreams of directing his team on a masterful 12-play, 86 yard comeback drive after turning the ball over all day and even briefly riding the bench.
But, whether by fate, skill or sheer luck, all those improbable outcomes combined to form a riveting conclusion to a zany game for the Virginia offense. Because of it, Virginia was able to demonstrate a degree of resilience uncommon for a headstrong group of teenagers and twenty-somethings.
“We’ve got competitors,” Rocco said. “We’ve got winners on this team. We did our best just to overcome.”
Although the offense garnered all the post-game attention for a rivetingly chaotic performance, the defense received far too little credit for executing the most extensive bail-out job since TARP. Time and again the Virginia offense failed to supply their defensive teammates with sufficient rest, either by fumbling the ball deep in its own territory or refusing to run the ball enough to sustain long, time-consuming drives.
With few exceptions, the defense answered the call against a big and brutish Penn State offensive front. Steve Greer and the front seven limited Penn State to 2.9 yards per carry, the besieged young secondary forestalled several potentially big Penn State plays, and the defense stiffened when it counted — especially after those turnovers. Following the four giveaways, Virginia allowed a grand total of -14 yards and three points.
“I think we’re resilient,” Greer said. “We did some of that last season, and I think every part of our program is geared towards that. No matter what, we’re no easy out.”
Finally, there’s Penn State. Put it this way: If I declared before Saturday that a major college team would lose in gut-wrenching fashion mainly because its kicker missed four manageable field goals and an extra point, is Penn State not the first team to come to mind? Needless to say — and seriously, after months of exhaustive coverage, little remains to be said — Penn State is certainly in a tailspin that begs the question of whether “Murphy’s Law” should become “O’Brien’s Law.”
No more daunting a challenge exists for a coach than encouraging players after losing a winnable game, especially one dealing with the perpetually looming cloud of scrutiny and hostility currently afflicting Penn State. And yet, O’Brien has inspired his team to play not like a team with nothing to play for but rather like one with nothing to lose.
“We just have to get back to work on Monday and keep working hard,” O’ Brien said. “These kids left it all out there today, there’s no question about that, and I really appreciate their effort.”
Senior quarterback Matt McGloin epitomized the courageous doggedness of the Nittany Lions, shaking off a nasty shoulder injury to nearly will his team to a monumental road victory. But moral victories are figments of the imagination in college football: O’Brien and his players are still likely hovering between despondence and sheer depression. Hopefully, though, they know that even as their program has come to signify the basest elements of college football, their determination helped demonstrate the sport’s noblest.
In one sense, Saturday’s game represented a disappointment, a dismal contest that cast aspersion on both teams’ ability to compete in their respective conferences. Even Virginia offensive coordinator Bill Lazor craved a higher-quality game.
“We wanted it to be pretty,” Lazor said. “Unfortunately, today was ugly as far as the penalties and the turnovers. It’s amazing as a team we were able to find a way to win it.”
But as more than 50,000 people braced to watch that final kick, the ugliness didn’t really matter. Saturday offered a taste of what disciples of the sport truly value the most: compelling human drama and authentic inspiration. Through their travails, Virginia and Penn State provided both — and that’s what college football is all about.