Virginia storms back to beat Penn State, 17-16
Cavaliers overcome offensive miscues with strong defense, late touchdown
The Virginia football team needed the perfect storm to overcome a laundry list of mistakes against Penn State Saturday. Two game-changing catches by sophomore tight end Jake McGee and four missed field goals by Nittany Lion sophomore kicker Sam Ficken provided the necessary jolt to lift Virginia to a heart-throbbing — albeit far from flawless — 17-16 victory.
It took the most missed field goals by an opposing kicker since 1964 and the fewest rushing yards in a win since 2002, but when an elated Cavalier team stormed the field following Ficken’s final miss, the team was 2-0 for the second consecutive season under head coach Mike London.
“We weren’t clicking on all cylinders but we did enough to eke out a win here,” London said. “[Penn State’s] a very good team, a very talented team.”
The Virginia offense was anemic for more than three quarters, committing four turnovers — including one on the first play from scrimmage — and seven penalties while gaining just 32 yards on 25 rushing attempts. Junior quarterback Michael Rocco was temporarily replaced by sophomore Phillip Sims. But with five minutes remaining, the offense made perhaps its most baffling series of mistakes in an afternoon filled with them, burning their final timeout to set up a third down play only to commit a false start penalty out of the huddle.
Yet somehow, Virginia still found itself just 78 yards away from stealing a victory from Penn State.
As heavy rain began to fall on the 56,087 fans at Scott Stadium on 3rd-and-16 from the Virginia 22, the Cavaliers struck lightning at just the right moment.
“The number one thing was the composure of the players, they executed,” offensive coordinator Bill Lazor said. “They made it happen, they battled.”
Rocco hung in the pocket long enough to allow his receivers time to get downfield while Penn State brought the rush. As the pocket collapsed, Rocco drifted to his left and launched a high, lofting pass to McGee, who pinned the ball against his shoulder pads for a 44 yard gain while being dragged down by a pair of Penn State defenders to draw a defensive pass interference penalty.
“I kind of got pushed up in the pocket and I just saw Jake,” Rocco said. “Whenever Jake’s standing there, I just trust him and I threw the ball up to him and he made a play.”
Six plays later, Rocco found McGee again in the middle of the end-zone for the go-ahead six-yard touchdown pass with 1:28 remaining to complete a 12-play, 86-yard drive that rendered more than three quarters of offensive futility a moot point. When it counted most, the offense came through.
“We’ve got competitors, we’ve got winners on this team,” Rocco said. “We tasted what it was like to have a great season last year and come up a little short. So we had guys that were determined to get the job done even if we had things go against us today.”
Nothing came easy for Virginia Saturday. As the clock ticked down the final 90 seconds in the pouring rain, Penn State drove closer to a go-ahead score.
Senior quarterback Matthew McGloin methodically brought the Nittany Lions into field goal range while Ficken looked on knowing that the most difficult day of his collegiate career would be defined solely by his final kick.
With a single second remaining, Ficken could not overcome the weather, the pressure, and the Cavaliers’ kick rush as he pulled his 42-yard attempt wide left, sealing an improbable, imperfect and potentially season-changing win for Virginia.
“For us to stay calm and collected to drive down the field and get that score to go ahead, it’s just a great feeling,” sophomore wide receiver Darius Jennings said. “It proves that when times get rough, we can show up in the clutch.” It was Jennings whose 24-yard reception on the team’s final drive set up McGee’s decisive touchdown.
Meanwhile, a Nittany Lion team that had dominated play for most of the afternoon fell to 0-2 for the first time since 2001. Penn State faced humiliation and uncertainty during one of the most tumultuous offseasons in college football history entering the season. In the first game of a new era under coach Bill O’Brien last Saturday against Ohio, the Nittany Lions suffered their first embarrassing setback on the field in the 24-14 loss.
If there was any question as to how Penn State would respond Saturday against Virginia, the Nittany Lions made their style of play apparent from the game’s opening drive. A team that had lost so much over the last year played with nothing to lose.
Penn State converted two fourth downs and attempted a flea-flicker in their 17-play, 75-yard opening drive to take a 7-0 lead. Despite spending much of the afternoon with possession of the ball in Virginia territory, Penn State would not score again until the fourth quarter. A Virginia defense that had failed to impress in the season-opening win against Richmond single-handedly kept the game close.
In each quarter, the Cavalier defense took the field for the first time already deep in its own territory. Each time, the unit stood firm. In the four drives following a turnover — with Penn State starting on average at its opponent’s 25-yard line — the Nittany Lions lost 14 yards and scored just three points.
“We all just stuck together,” senior defensive end Ausar Walcott said. “We had faith in each other, and we believed that we were going to get the ball back for the offense and the offense was going to drive down and put it in for us.”
As the second half got underway, the Virginia offense finally found a rhythm. Rocco found McGee for a then career-long 26-yard reception and then hit sophomore wide receiver Dominique Terrell for a 20-yard gain to bring the ball to the Penn State 7-yard line. Rocco completed the drive with a one-yard touchdown pass to junior tight end Jeremiah Mathis to take a 10-7 lead.
Following the third turnover of the afternoon on a fumbled snap by Rocco late in the third quarter, however, London decided to make his move to try to spark the listless offense. On the final drive of the third quarter, London inserted Sims to replace Rocco. But Sims went three-and-out on his first drive, leading to a Penn State touchdown on a 30-yard completion to sophomore wide receiver Allen Robinson with 13:10 remaining in the fourth quarter to make the score 13-10. Ficken’s extra point attempt would be blocked.
On the Cavaliers’ next drive, Sims committed a fumble of his own to send possession back to Penn State and set up Ficken’s lone made field goal to make the score 16-10. Rocco was then reinserted into the game for the team’s final two drives.
“It’s unfortunate that the quarterback’s the guy that’s in there and gets the blame,” London said. “But he also hopefully gets the credit and hopefully [Rocco] will get the credit for doing an admirable job.”
Virginia will next face Georgia Tech Saturday when the team will attempt to improve to 3-0 for the first time since 2005.