Penn State Hits Road To Battle Virginia Cavaliers
By: Willie Bee
Wednesday, September 5, 2012
Nobody told Bill O'Brien this was going to be easy, but it's safe to say he and many others didn't think his first game as head coach of the Penn State Nittany Lions would be as tough as it turned out to be.
An offseason of turmoil and upheaval in Happy Valley was extended with a 24-14 upset loss to the Ohio Bobcats in the Nittany Lions' season opener. O'Brien and his squad are now faced with a road trip as underdogs when they travel to Virginia to meet the Cavaliers this Saturday (noon ET).
The contest from Charlottesville will be carried nationally by ABC as the lead-in game to a USC-Syracuse battle that is being played in New Jersey. Virginia opened as a 7-8 point favorite on the college football odds screen, and the spread increased to 10 by Wednesday morning. Gridiron gamblers are looking at 43½-44 points for the total.
O'Brien broke down the defeat to Ohio very simply as a case of poor execution by PSU in the face of great effort by the Bobcats when it counted. Ohio scored 21 straight points in the second half and never needed the six points Las Vegas oddsmakers were giving.
"We turned it over, they didn't turn it over. They converted on third down in the second half on offense; we didn't convert on our offense on third down in the second half. We had chances to break passes up, make interceptions," O'Brien told the media Tuesday afternoon. "We had chances to hit guys that were wide open or catch the ball being wide open, and we did not make those plays and Ohio did."
Penn State fumbled on its opening drive after getting inside the Ohio 25, perhaps a portent for the afternoon. Matt McGloin and the offense recovered, with McGloin throwing for 260 yards and a pair of TDs to push the team to a 14-3 halftime lead, but that was the end of the day for the Nittany Lions on the scoreboard.
The real story was how porous the PSU defense became in the second half and surrendered almost 500 yards overall, many of those on 3rd-down conversions by Ohio (11-for-21).
Virginia's assault group scored early and often in a 43-19 victory vs. the Richmond Spiders last week, just failing to cover the 24½-point spread. Michael Rocco directed the Cavs to points on four of the first five possessions, ending his day with 311 yards and a TD while completing 25-of-37.
A strange nepotistic twist to that game and this one, Rocco was playing a Richmond team coached by his uncle Danny Rocco while his family roots with Penn State go back two generations. Frank Rocco, Jr., Michael's father, was part of the 1982 National Championship team at State College and later worked at Penn State, including as an assistant under Joe Paterno, and Frank Sr. also worked as an administrative assistant plus assistant coach in the Joe Pa years.
Mike London, in his third season at Virginia, will no doubt want to exploit those Penn State shortcomings on defense and brings his Cavaliers into Saturday's tilt with only a couple of minor injuries.
The Nittany Lions have a couple of concerns on the health front, beginning with tailback Bill Belton. A twisted ankle has the sophomore questionable in the Don Best college football injury report. Belton led all PSU runners last week with 53 yards on 13 carries, and also caught a touchdown pass.
Stephon Morris is also questionable and hobbled with an ankle injury. The senior corner is being counted on to provide experience in a defensive backfield that is replacing four starters from a year ago.
Saturday marks the first time in 12 years since the two schools met in a pigskin clash, the last time in 2002 when Penn State broke open a close game at halftime to run away with a 35-14 home win. It's the eighth get-together all-time with the Nittany Lions holding a 5-2 advantage in the first seven that started way back in the 1890s.