To whom it may concern (i.e., football players and fans): We MUST beat Penn State on Saturday. There are no ifs, ands or buts about it.
I held my tongue on the subject of Virginia football all year figuring that a new coach and a fairly young team needed room to grow. Unfortunately, for the most part, they found room to drown. Only last-minute touchdowns against Clemson and Georgia Tech salvaged an otherwise lackluster season.
But this is not the time for critical hindsight and second-guessing. This is a time for unity. Just as our nation became unified after the tragedy of Sept. 11 that postponed the originally scheduled game, the University community must rally together in support of our team.
There is more on the line here than just a game. We have a chance to finish the season on a high note, send our seniors out with a win and bring some closure to a tough first season for coach Al Groh.
There also is the small matter of Penn State. We all know that misery loves company and this weekend provides the perfect opportunity for Virginia to vindicate a mediocre season. Penn State, who struggled early in the season with a subpar 0-4 record, is now 5-5 and needs a win in its last game this Saturday to become bowl-eligible. Why should they get to go if we can't?
But there is more at stake than just a bowl bid. Nittany Lions coach Joe Paterno has had only two losing seasons in his career at Penn State - 1988 and 2000. A win on Saturday for the Cavaliers would ensure Paterno's first back-to-back losing seasons ever. Paterno already has surpassed Bear Bryant as the all-time winningest coach in Division I-A football. He doesn't need the record and a bowl bid in the same year.
To the players: Playing Penn State will be like playing a mirror image of our team. Statistically, the Nittany Lions are nearly identical to Virginia. They average 350 yards of offense per game while we average 347 yards. Our defense gives up an average of 443 yards per game while their defense gives up 456. And Penn State has used two quarterbacks this season nearly as often as we have.
So what will set us apart this Saturday? Heart. We need some heart from you this weekend. We saw it at Clemson and we saw it in the second half against the Yellow Jackets, but it seemed to be missing against Virginia Tech. If we come out flat, then we could be dealing with a 31-point deficit again at halftime.
On the other hand, we can't just come out strong and then sit on our laurels after halftime. If last year's opening-day loss to BYU is not clear enough in your memories, then look at what Penn State did last weekend at Michigan State. After being down, 31-21, at the half, Paterno worked his locker room magic and the Nittany Lions outscored the Spartans 21-0 in the third quarter to secure the win. And don't forget, Penn State leads the all-time series, 4-1. A strong, full 60-minute effort could be the cornerstone for a turnaround season next year.
But the players are not alone in needing some focus for the weekend. Adrenaline can only take our athletes so far. We need full student and faculty support on Saturday to show the players and coaches our appreciation during a challenging season. Yes, it's a noon game and yes, I know that's early. But on Friday night, have just one less drink. Go to bed an hour earlier and save it for the pregame Saturday morning. You have all day after the game to continue drinking or studying, wherever your priorities lie. And maybe, just maybe, if the students are rowdy enough, we can get those old fogies on the other side of Scott Stadium to stand up and cheer like they were in their twenties again.
So, fans, especially you fourth years, get ready to cheer like crazy on Saturday. Players and coaches, get ready to give us something to cheer about. And Penn State, get ready to call it a season because we are coming out to play this weekend.