Mac from the Fifty
Nov. 6, 2002
The framed picture is prominently displayed in the office of Al Groh’s administrative assistant. Every intern, coach, recruit, and visitor can’t help but notice it.
Several color photos of Virginia’s 2001 win over Penn State replay one of the program’s milestone wins with the score written in big, silver letters…Virginia 20, Penn State 14. It took a lot of defense…a lot of heart, and a 92 yard fumble return by current cornerback Art Thomas for the Cavaliers to beat one of the most respected programs in the country. UVA’s December win over legendary coach Joe Paterno was highlighted by the swan song of Antoine Womack who rushed for 153 yards in his final game and marked another epic second half performance where the Cavs decided the second 30 minutes are just more important than the first 30. UVA stifled PSU twice in the fourth quarter with interceptions, which halted drives and preserved the win.
Virginia’s victory knocked the Nittany Lions out of a bowl game and gave “JoePa” plenty to ponder in the off-season. 2002 couldn’t arrive soon enough.
With radio talk shows and newspaper columnists forecasting gloom and doom for one of the great college programs in the country, Paterno and his staff proceeded to build this year’s team around a tank for a running back, a defense with more speed, and a second year quarterback who has a bit more freedom.
The Lions reeled off three straight wins including a made for TV matchup with then…#7 Nebraska. In front of 110,000, Penn State simply got off as redshirt sophomore quarterback Zack Mills directed five consecutive scoring drives that turned a 0-0 game into a 33-7 route. 40-7 was the final…and Penn State football was back!
If not for three losses by a combined 16 points to Iowa, Ohio State, and Michigan…and maybe a couple of officials’ calls, this team could be in the thick of the BCS thing. The Nittany Lions have gone 3-3 over their last six…. but could easily be 9-0 this weekend.
As far as the Cavaliers are concerned Saturday in Happy Valley kicks off one of the most difficult stretches in Virginia football history. UVA will test itself against the nation’s third toughest schedule the rest of the way…the teams left on the schedule are a combined 30-7…and two of them…NC State and Virginia Tech have lost only once.
Coach Groh gave the team an entire week off prior to Penn State, a decision he made in August when breaking down the four phases of the 2002 campaign. He told the media Monday, considering the 13 game slate, and the November schedule, giving the players an opportunity to concentrate on academics and get their legs back just made sense.
UVA hits State College a decided underdog. Penn State is eyeing a major bowl and an upper division finish in the Big Ten. Besides the Wahoos, only Indiana and Michigan State remain and the Lions will be favored in those games as well. Larry Johnson is a horse…279 yards against Illinois last week…257 against Northwestern…and he is chasing the Penn State single season rushing record held by Lydell Mitchell. He needs only 346 yards in the remaining three games.
To win Virginia will need points in the first half…and everyone will have to contribute. Kicker Kurt Smith, who has missed three of his last four field goals, will have to hit a couple. UVA will have to run…and protect Matt Schaub when the Cavs go four and five wide. Penn State has been difficult to block and score against…not allowing an offensive touchdown in 11 of the last 12 quarters they have played.
Get this one…. and there will be another poster for the football office wall.