Cavaliers Defeat Penn State, 20-14
Dec 1, 2001
By HANK KURZ Jr.
AP Sports Writer
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va.- Zack Mills’ voice was barely audible as he blamed himself for Penn State’s season-ending loss.
Mills threw three interceptions and was stripped for a fumble that Art Thomas returned 92 yards for a game-changing touchdown Saturday as Virginia rallied to win 20-14, ending Penn State’s bowl aspirations.
“The guy made a great play, and I didn’t protect the ball,” Mills said, speaking of John Duckett’s strip in the third quarter, when the Nittany Lions (5-6) seemed on the brink of taking a commanding lead.
“Football is a lot about momentum. It kind of put the pressure on us to throw the ball more, and I didn’t make the plays.”
Thomas’ return did change the momentum in a huge way, pulling the Cavaliers (5-7) to 14-13, but late interceptions by Chris Williams and then Angelo Crowell with 1:12 left put the Nittany Lions away for good.
“They gave themselves something to remember about this year’s team,” first-year coach Al Groh said. “They showed tremendous will to win.”
Penn State, which started with four losses and had rallied to win five of six, all by coming from behind, turned the ball over five times, with Matt Senneca throwing the interception to Williams with 2:09 to play.
“It’s real disappointing, especially for the seniors who have been through so much,” Senneca said. “We were one game away from turning this whole thing around, and it just slips away from us like that.”
Mills finished 12-for-24 for 136 yards. Senneca was 0-for-4.
Coach Joe Paterno, who earlier this season broke coach Bear Bryant’s Division I record of 323 victories, finished the year with 327.
The tide turned midway through the third quarter with Mills rolling left and looking to run on a third-and-6 play from Virginia’s 8.
Instead, Duckett sliced through and knocked the ball away, where it landed near Thomas’ feet and the cornerback had no one in front of him.
“I didn’t know anybody was chasing me, but I was thinking in the back of my head, `I can’t get caught if somebody is, so keep running,”‘ he said.
It was the longest fumble return in Virginia history.
“That’s one of the biggest plays of our entire year, if not the biggest play,” tailback Alvin Pearman said. “After that, we got fired up and once we got that going, we just sucked the will out of them.”
It was the first time Penn State had lost a fumble in seven games, and the play brought the crowd back to life, and the Cavaliers, too.
Virginia forced Penn State to go three-and-out and, with Bryson Spinner taking over at quarterback, drove 57 yards in eight plays. Pearman capped the march with a 16-yard touchdown run that produced the final.
The score came with 3:20 left in the third quarter, leaving the Nittany Lions plenty of time to come back, but Virginia’s defense didn’t allow it. Mills was intercepted twice, Senneca once the rest of the way.
The final quarter also included the second and third missed field goals of the game by Virginia’s David Greene, who also made two earlier, and a miss by Penn State’s Robbie Gould with 10:21 remaining.
Antwoine Womack, who helped create a spat between Paterno and former Virginia coach George Welsh when he committed to Penn State and then attended Virginia, gained 153 yards on 31 carries in his final game.
After missing most of the season with injuries, Womack was exhausted after being the workhorse, but ecstatic to be leaving a winner.
“It was just amazing, just to get this win, just everything,” he said. “We knew we could win the game. The whole objective was to pound them, to suck the will out of them. Coach was saying that all week.”
The Nittany Lions led 14-6 at halftime after two 80-yard drives. Eric McCoo ran 3 yards for a touchdown midway through the first quarter, and Mills hit Mick Blosser with a 4-yard pass midway through the second.
It was Blosser’s first career touchdown reception.
The second drive was kept alive by a running into the kicker flag against Virginia after Penn State was forced to punt from its own 35.
Greene kicked field goals of 32 and 37 yards for the Cavaliers, the latter on the final play of the half after Jerton Evans’ interception of Mills at the Nittany Lions 12. Greene missed from 27, 25 and 33 yards.