Well, THAT was interesting. In a game that was loaded with drama both on and off the field, Virginia came back to beat Penn State 17-16 at Scott Stadium this afternoon. Virginia re-took the lead late on a Michael Rocco touchdown pass to Jake McGee, and Penn State missed an opportunity to win the game as time expired, when kicker Sam Ficken missed his field goal wide left.
Miscues ruled the day for both teams today. For Virginia it was turnovers. The Hoos had 4 turnovers today, including a fumble on their first offensive play by tight end Paul Freedman. Michael Rocco threw an interception to a defensive lineman on a screen pass, and later bobbled a snap that was recovered by a Penn State defender. Phillip Sims was then thrown into the fray in the 2nd half, and he also gave the ball away on a fumble.
Part of the reason Virginia was able to overcome a horrible turnover differential and win anyway was that Penn State had a woeful day in the kicking game. Nittany Lion kicker Anthony Fera transferred to Texas after the recent NCAA sanctions were handed down, and boy did Penn State miss him today. Sam Ficken was 1 for 5 on field goals today, and had a critical extra point blocked early in the 4th quarter. If Penn State had received even an average performance by their kicker today, they might have been able to run away and hide from the Cavaliers. Instead, the kicking game for the Nittany Lions proved to be the pivotal difference in the game.
Coming into the season, many Cavalier fans were worried about how their young defense would perform, especially against pass-happy teams like Penn State. Today, they did a pretty solid job overall. Yes, Matt McGloin threw for 2 touchdowns and no picks, but Penn State completed less than half of their passes, and only amassed 209 yards passing total. Penn State did find some success on the ground, using a few different runners, usually on draws or delayed handoffs from shotgun. Virginia will want to sure up that rushing defense before heading to Atlanta next weekend to take on Georgia Tech and the always-difficult triple option attack.
Virginia's offense today was a far cry from the 500+ yards they racked up last weekend against Richmond. Penalties and turnovers killed Virginia's momentum at several points throughout the day, and the Cavaliers' run game struggled for the 2nd straight week. It was obvious from the jump that Penn State's game plan was to stack the box and take away the run, forcing Michael Rocco to beat them. For a while, it didn't look like he would. Overall Rocco had an okay day, throwing for 258 yards on 21 completions, with 2 touchdowns and an interception. Those numbers aren't too bad, but Rocco can play better. Jake McGee was, without a doubt, the player of the game for the Cavaliers today. McGee had two long, difficult catches down the middle in traffic, including a highlight-reel one-handed grab on Virginia's game winning drive, for a gain of 44 yards. McGee finished the drive off with a 6 yard touchdown catch from Rocco with just under 90 seconds remaining. McGee looks like he is going to have a bright career in orange and blue.
Well, it wasn't easy, but Virginia fans can take solace in the fact that the team is 2-0. I'm sure much debate this week will be about Mike London and Bill Lazor's decision to insert Phillip Sims in the 3rd quarter, but I fully expect Michael Rocco to start next week at Georgia Tech. This game is somewhat similar to the Indiana game last year, where Virginia survives a scare, and there are lessons to be learned. Still, those lessons are always better to learn in a win rather than in a loss.