By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — For the University of Virginia football team, it all starts Sept. 1, when the Richmond Spiders visit Scott Stadium for the season-opener.
Mike London played and coached at UR, and you won’t catch him looking past the team he guided to the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision title in 2008. Nationally, though, the Cavaliers’ second game will attract more attention, and London understands why.
The eyes of the college football world are on Penn State, for reasons that have been well-chronicled. What will become of a storied program rocked by scandal, NCAA sanctions, player departures and the November 2011 dismissal of its legendary coach, Joe Paterno (who died about three months later)?
Some answers will be provided Sept. 1, when Penn State, in its first game under coach Bill O’Brien, hosts Ohio University at Beaver Stadium. More will come Sept. 8, when the Nittany Lions meet the Wahoos at 61,500-seat Scott Stadium.
Only about 1,500 tickets remain for the noon game, which is expected to sell out. For a UVa team trying to build on its 2011 success — the Cavaliers finished 8-5 and advanced to the Chick-fil-A Bowl — the date with Penn State carries extra significance.
“When you have the opportunity to play teams that have won bowl games, programs that have traditionally done well,” London said, “any time they come into Scott Stadium, having a sellout crowd is very, very important.”
In 2010, London’s first season as Virginia’s head coach, his team played three non-conference opponents at Scott Stadium: Eastern Michigan and FCS schools Richmond and VMI. A year ago, the `Hoos hosted William and Mary, Southern Mississippi and Idaho.
Not since Aug. 30, 2008, when Southern California came to town, has UVa played a traditional power from outside the ACC at Scott Stadium.
“When you have a team like that coming into your place, then there is a little bit of extra buzz and excitement, because this is a team you normally wouldn’t play,” London said. “It being Penn State and the type of program that it’s been on the football field, it makes it important.”
The outcome may well have recruiting implications, London said, and could affect how the Cavaliers are perceived around the country.
The Nittany Lions have played twice at Scott Stadium, both times with Paterno on their sideline. On Sept. 10, 1988, No. 18 Penn State whipped UVa 42-14 in front of a crowd of 45,000, then a stadium record.
George Welsh was the Cavaliers’ coach that season, and in 1989 his team knocked off the Nittany Lions in State College, Pa.
Welsh’s successor was Al Groh, whose first season as UVa’s head coach ended Dec. 1, 2001, with a 20-14 win over Penn State before 57,005 at Scott Stadium. The game, originally scheduled to be played Sept. 13 on ESPN’s Thursday night showcase, was postponed because of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
London coached the defensive linemen on that 2001 UVa team, and he hasn’t forgotten a game in which the Cavaliers scored the final 17 points, six on a 92-yard fumble return by cornerback Art Thomas.
“Scoop and score,” London said before practice Monday afternoon. “The fans were crazy. I definitely remember that. That was a great game.”
The Nittany Lions finished 9-4 last season and had reason to be optimistic about their prospects for 2012. In June, however, Jerry Sandusky, a former Penn State assistant under Paterno, was found guilty of sexually abusing 10 boys over a span of 15 years, sometimes on campus. The NCAA hit Penn State with unprecedented penalties the next month and ruled that PSU players who transferred to other schools would be immediately eligible.
More than a half-dozen players have left the Nittany Lions’ program, including tailback Silas Redd (to Southern California), kicker/punter Anthony Fera (to Texas), linebacker Khairi Fortt (to California), wideout Justin Brown (to Oklahoma), tight end Kevin Haplea (to Florida State) and offensive lineman Ryan Nowicki (to Illinois).
Penn State’s front seven on defense should be stout, but only one full-time starter returns on offense.
“In light of what’s happened recently,” London said, the challenges facing Penn State are enormous, but “there are still some very, very good college football players there.
“It’s not a weak team coming into Charlottesville, to say the least. It’s a very good team that’s coming in. It has something to prove, because the national spotlight has been on it for such a long time. When you get a situation like that, players always kind of rally together and go out fighting. So I anticipate getting the best that they have. Any team that plays them this year is going to get the best they’ve got.”
Virginia, which sold 28,942 season tickets in 2011, has exceeded that figure this season. As of Tuesday afternoon, 29,444 had been sold, said Corbin Hunt, UVa’s associate athletics director of ticket sales and operations.
In addition to single-game tickets, season tickets and mini-packages are still available for UVa’s home games this season. For information, call (800) 542-8821, visit VirginiaSports.com/tickets, or stop by the athletics ticket office at Bryant Hall.