By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — When the news broke in 2007 that the UVa-Penn State football series would resume with two games — the first to be played at Scott Stadium in 2012, the second at Beaver Stadium in ’13 — there was reason to believe legendary coach Joe Paterno might bring a nationally ranked team to town this year.
As recently as last season, when the Nittany Lions won eight of their first nine games, that scenario was still feasible. But then a sexual-abuse scandal staggered Penn State, and Paterno was fired Nov. 9. He died Jan. 22, and the program he built has absorbed more blows since Paterno’s passing.
In June, Jerry Sandusky, a former Penn State assistant, was found guilty of sexually abusing 10 boys over a span of 15 years, sometimes on campus.
In July, the NCAA severely penalized Penn State and ruled that PSU players who transferred to other schools would be immediately eligible. More than a half-dozen departed, including two of Penn State’s most talented players, tailback Silas Redd (to Southern California) and wideout Justin Brown (to Oklahoma).
Then, in its first game under coach Bill O’Brien, the New England Patriots’ offensive coordinator last season, Penn State lost 24-14 to Ohio University in State College, Pa.
And so the first meeting between UVa and Penn State since 2002 has lost some luster. But for Virginia, which opened with a 43-19 rout of Richmond, it remains a game of considerable magnitude.
The Cavaliers (1-0) host the Nittany Lions (0-1) at noon Saturday, and a near-capacity crowd is expected at 61,500-seat Scott Stadium.
This will mark the first time since the 2008 season-opener, when the mighty USC Trojans visited Scott Stadium, that the Wahoos have hosted a traditional power from outside the ACC. Moreover, ABC is televising the game nationally, and so it’s an opportunity for third-year coach Mike London to showcase his program to prospects around the country.
The `Hoos are coming off an 8-5 season in which they advanced to a bowl for the first time since 2007. They’re looking to build on that success this fall.
“I think any time that you have a chance to play on TV, particularly national TV, it expands your brand,” London said. “You reach markets of young men that sometimes letters can’t reach. If you play well, then you have young people, parents, interested in your school.”
The Nittany Lions lead the series 5-2, but history should not be a factor in Saturday’s game, London believes.
“I know at Penn State there is a lot of prestige and a lot of tradition,” he said, “but we’re getting ready to play a football game and play a football team — not the prestige and tradition.”
Still, London said, when he looks at the Nittany Lions he sees “a very talented team.”
Penn State may be without its No. 1 tailback, sophomore Bill Belton, who sprained an ankle against Ohio. Either way, London said, the `Hoos are “quite sure that Coach O’Brien is going to have his team ready to play.”
Virginia offensive tackle Oday Aboushi, an All-America candidate, said Monday that he expects to face a “real emotional team [playing] with a vengeance.”
UVa defensive end Jake Snyder said: “We’re going to be expecting their best game. They want to get their first win, and we want to get our second.”
Heading into the Cavaliers’ opener, much was made of Michael Rocco’s relationship with Danny Rocco. Michael Rocco, a junior from Lynchburg, is UVa’s starting quarterback. Danny Rocco, UR’s first-year coach, is one of his uncles.
Michael Rocco has connections to Virginia’s second opponent, too.
“All growing up, I was the biggest Penn State fan there was,” Rocco said last week. “It was just part of my family and part of my life.”
His grandfather, Frank Rocco Sr., spent 19 years on Paterno’s staff at Penn State. Michael’s father, Frank Rocco Jr., was a quarterback on Penn State’s 1982 national championship team. Danny Rocco began his college career at Penn State before transferring to Wake Forest.
“When my family and I looked at the schedule, whenever it first came out, we were just kind of shocked at how familiar the first couple of games would be,” said Michael Rocco, who passed up an opportunity to play for the Nittany Lions.”I’ve had so many affiliations with Penn State, it’s crazy how it’s worked out, but my approach doesn’t change based on the opponent.”
In his 14th consecutive start for Virginia, Rocco completed 25 of 37 passes for 311 yards — one shy of his career high — and one touchdown against Richmond. He wasn’t intercepted.His arm may not be as strong as that of his backup, Phillip Sims, a transfer from Alabama, and he may not be as swift as UVa’s No. 3 quarterback, David Watford, but Rocco shines in other ways.
“He manages the game and makes the throws and the checks and he calls plays at the line of scrimmage. He directs the pass protection,” London said.”That type of player is the type of player Michael is. It’s a positive for us, as long as we continue to keep winning and moving the ball. Every player, every receiver, every DB, has their own pluses and minuses. So despite those things, they still play, and we understand what their limitations are, but we try to use their strengths to the maximum ability. I think Mike’s been taking advantage of that.”
Rocco and Sims, who made his UVa debut in the fourth quarter, combined to pass for 361 yards in the opener. Virginia’s running game wasn’t as productive, though that was partly because the Spiders stacked the box with defenders.
“I think it was a good start to the running game and where we want to be,” Aboushi said, but “all around the offensive side there’s room for improvement.”
The strength of this Penn State team, which returned only one full-time starter on offense, figures to be its defense, especially the front seven.
“They’re a big, physical line,” Aboushi said. “They have some guys up front who do some things. But like I said, I like our chances against them. Our offensive line, in my opinion, is great, one of the best in the ACC.”
And if the Nittany Lions load the box and dare the Cavaliers to throw? That won’t bother UVa, not with such weapons as wideouts Tim Smith, Darius Jennings and E.J. Scott and tight ends Paul Freedman, Jake McGee and Colter Phillips.
Smith, a junior, led Virginia with six catches for 96 yards against UR. Jennings, a sophomore, had five receptions for 84 yards — both career highs — including a 51-yard TD.
“We definitely have talented running backs, but I think that we can also stretch the field,” Freedman said.
The Cavaliers’ opener was regionally televised. The stage is much bigger this weekend.
“You just have to love the spotlight,” Freedman said. “We talk about that all the time. You have to love the pressure in that situation. All the eyes are on you, so it’s a great opportunity to show what you have.”