'Hoos Not Underestimating Nittany Lions
CHARLOTTESVILLE – If the Penn State Nittany Lions were hoping the press conferences Tuesday at John Paul Jones Arena would produce bulletin-board material, they would have been disappointed.
Virginia football coach Mike London and players Jake Snyder, Oday Aboushi and Paul Freedman spoke highly of Penn State, which visits Scott Stadium this weekend. Never mind that the Nittany Lions (0-1), whose roster has been depleted in the wake of NCAA sanctions, lost at home Saturday to the Ohio Bobcats and will be underdogs against the Cavaliers (1-0).
“They’re a great team, and just because they didn’t get a win in their opening week doesn’t mean anything negative about them,” said Snyder, a junior defensive end. “And that’s something that the older guys definitely know. We realized that about Indiana last year. Even though [the Hoosiers] lost their first game, they still came out and gave us a great game and played to the last play.”
London said: “Ohio’s a very good team. Penn State is a very good team.”
UVa hosts Penn State at noon Saturday in a game ABC will televise. The Nittany Lions are coming off a 9-4 season, but this is not the team they once expected to field.
With a sexual-abuse scandal rocking its campus, Penn State fired its legendary coach, Joe Paterno, on Nov. 9. In early January, the school hired Bill O’Brien, the New England Patriots’ offensive coordinator, to succeed Paterno, who would pass away Jan. 22.
In June, Jerry Sandusky, a former assistant under Paterno at Penn State, was found guilty of sexually abusing 10 boys over a span of 15 years, sometimes on campus. In July, the NCAA hit Penn State with unprecedented penalties and ruled that PSU players who transferred to other schools would be immediately eligible.
More than a half-dozen players departed, 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).
Many more Penn State players, however, chose to stay in State College, Pa.
“Those guys stuck by the school and the program that they love, and that’s something that’s pretty awesome, I think,” Snyder said Monday.
“Absolutely,” said Freedman, a senior tight end. “It’s a tough situation, and to stick with that and get the program going and take the next step and lead the program in the next direction is really admirable of them.”
Aboushi said: “I think it just shows a lot of courage and a lot of heart by those guys to stick with the program.”
During Penn State’s search for Paterno’s successor, ESPN mentioned London as a coach the school should consider. London never spoke to Penn State about the job and shook his head when asked Monday about the “reports.”
“Thanks to [ESPN analyst] Desmond Howard for throwing it out there like that,” London said, smiling. “No, I love the job that I have. I love this place, I love this community and I love the players here and what this university stands for. That always happens. There are always people throwing your name out there and then it growing legs, and all of a sudden, it’s a centipede and you have all kinds of people talking about it.”
WELCOME BREAK: Before returning in December 2009 to UVa, where he had two stints as an assistant under Al Groh, London was head coach at the University of Richmond. London is also a former UR player and assistant coach, and it’s been difficult for him to avoid his alma mater since taking over at UVa.
His first game as Virginia’s head coach, in 2010, was a 34-13 win over UR. On Saturday, the Cavaliers opened their third season under London with a 43-19 win over the Spiders.
Games against his alma mater are emotional for him, London acknowledged Monday, and he’s not unhappy that UVa’s next meeting with UR is two years away.
“Next time we play all the players I recruited [to Richmond] would be gone, that’s for sure,” London said. “Again, to be human and answer the question truthfully, yeah, you think about the people that you spent some years with – some good times and bad times — and you won championships with.”
UVa’s non-conference opponents in coming years will include Penn State, VMI and Ball State in 2013; UCLA, Richmond and Kent State in 2014; UCLA and William & Mary in 2015; and Stanford in 2017 and ’18.
All but three of those games will be played at Scott Stadium. The Wahoos are scheduled to visit Penn State in 2013, UCLA in 2015 and Stanford in 2018.
MISSED OPPORTUNITIES: Against Richmond, Virginia amassed 545 yards, a total that easily could have been higher.
“I think we’ve really got to stress to our guys that when they get that football in their hand, they’ve got to get up the field,” offensive coordinator Bill Lazor said afterward at Scott Stadium. “There were a couple times that stood out to me on the sideline where we got the football in our hand and danced a little bit, and then we ended up getting ourselves into some third-down situations … I think when we watch the film with the players, they’ll agree that if they had just took the ball and gotten north and south, you’ll keep turning the sticks over.”
Then again, Lazor noted, there’s “a balance in there, because sometimes they make great plays and make people miss. But I think we’re going to mature as an offense from this game. I think we’ll get better.”
NEXT IN LINE: UVa played nine true freshmen against UR: wide receivers Canaan Severin and Adrian Gamble, defensive ends Eli Harold, Mike Moore and Trent Corney, linebackers Kwontie Moore and Demeitre Brim, cornerback Maurice Canady and safety Anthony Cooper.
Of the true freshmen listed on the depth chart last week, only one didn’t play against UR: cornerback C.J. Moore. He continues to practice with the second-team defense, London said, and is likely to play this season. “We’d like to get him in the game,” London said.
The elder Moore, who starred at quarterback for George Welsh, coached the Cavaliers’ wide receivers in 2010 and ’11. He’s now working with the tight ends, a talented group that includes seniors Freedman and Colter Phillips, junior Jeremiah Mathis, sophomore Jake McGee and redshirt freshman Rob Burns.
“He’s great,” Freedman said. “He keeps it light, but he also gets on us when we need to. We just have so much respect for him as a player and a coach, with everything that he did here when he was playing and his great history. It’s just awesome having his knowledge and experience in the meeting room with us.”
McGee supplied perhaps the No. 1 highlight from UVa’s opener, reaching up with his left arm to make an off-balance one-handed grab of a Michael Rocco pass for a 17-yard gain.
“I probably wasn’t as surprised as the rest of you,” Freedman told reporters Monday, “because I know how good Jake’s hands are and the athletic ability he has to make those types of catches, because he does that pretty often [in practice]. But that was a pretty nice one.” Freedman smiled. “He is a lefty, though.”
MULTIPLE OPTIONS: When London was defensive line coach at UVa under Groh, it wasn’t unusual for the starters up front to play most of the game.
London’s defensive line coach, Jeff Hanson, substituted frequently during the opener, and that’s likely to continue. The depth chart released Monday includes 10 defensive linemen: ends Snyder, Harold, Mike Moore, Ausar Walcott and Bill Schautz, and tackles Brent Urban, Will Hill, Justin Renfrow, David Dean and Chris Brathwaite.
“No one wants to go out of the game,” London said, “but the reality of it up front [is that] someone is hitting you every play. You’re pushing and pulling on every play.”
This season, London said, the `Hoos “have some depth that can go into the game and provide relief for some other guys. I just think we’re stronger in that area this year than we were last year.”
Snyder said: “Any time you’re able to rotate in two or three guys at each position, it’s going to help a lot … So we’re trying to develop that with these explosive freshmen that we have, trying to bring them along, and we’ve also got some older guys that are talented as well. So it’s really good to have that depth, it gets you more rest. Yeah, we want to be out there every play, but we understand we’re not going to be 100 percent if we’re playing 65 snaps a game.”
ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT: Early in the third quarter Saturday, UVa tailback Kevin Parks was stopped for no gain on a fourth-and-1 run from Richmond’s 20-yard line. That didn’t please London, or his offensive linemen.
“Every time we’ve got a chance to impose our will on people, especially on fourth-and-1, and run the ball, and don’t get the extra yard, it’s definitely upsetting,” said Aboushi, an All-America candidate at offensive tackle.
“We know what we’re capable of doing, and to not get that one yard is unacceptable.”