Nittany Lions Head South in Need of a Victory
To call a contest so early in the season a swing game or to say a season is at a crossroads heading into the second week of college football is not entirely fair, but it may be true tomorrow.
The Penn State Nittany Lions (0-1) head to Charlottesville to take on the Virginia Cavaliers (1-0). Going back to last season, the Lions have lost three straight games overall with the average margin of victory 21.3 points. Many mistakes need to be corrected from last Saturday’s disappointing loss to Ohio. If things turn around this weekend at Scott Stadium and the Nittany Lions escape with a victory, the rest of the out-of conference schedule looks manageable with home games against a Navy team that looked awful against Notre Dame last week and a Temple squad that has not beaten Penn State since the early stages of World War II.
Virginia played in a bowl game last season for the first time since the 2007 season. Head coach Mike London, now in his third year at the helm of the program, has done a nice job getting things on the right track after a 4-8 2010 campaign. Last week, the Cavaliers defeated London’s old team, the Richmond Spiders, 43-19. They weren’t exactly tested, but they did look pretty good doing it.
A few players on Virginia to look out for:
Michael Rocco #16 — The junior quarterback grew up a Penn State fan with a strong family lineage to the university. He is in his second year as a starter at Virginia, and while he does not fit the mold of a dual threat quarterback like Tyler Tettleton who hurt Penn State with his arm and legs, Rocco is accurate to the tune of a 60.7 completion percentage last season and 67.6 rate last week.
Perry Jones #33 — The senior running back is a threat both as a runner and receiver out of the backfield. He scored 8 touchdowns last season and hauled in 48 receptions to go with his 915 rushing yards. He is not the only halfback that Virginia relies on, but he is the most experienced.
Demetrious Nicholson #1 — The sophomore cornerback had five tackles and a pass breakup last week against Richmond. The Virginia secondary is young but talented. Nicholson and Allen Robinson should see a lot of each other come Saturday.
Steve Greer #53 — One of the Cavaliers’ most veteran players, Greer occupies the middle linebacker spot on defense. He had four tackles last week including one for a loss, and his unit will try to take advantage of a Penn State running gane with several question marks.
A few things to watch for from Penn State:
Better In-Game Adjustments — The Nittany Lions looked to have a decent game plan last week, but once Ohio figured things out, they were never able to adapt as Ted Roof’s defense got beat on similar plays repeatedly. Roof did a decent amount of technique teaching in practice on Wednesday, and when he was not busy with that, the defensive coordinator was emphasizing creating turnovers. His unit could use one or two tomorrow.
The Running Back Position — While Bill Belton (ankle) has not been ruled out yet, it sounds like Derek Day will start for Penn State. Day has fifteen total carries in his career with over half of them coming last week. This is the type of game where Curtis Dukes, especially in short yardage situations, could really help the offense.
Play-calling — Bill O’Brien admitted in his Tuesday press conference that he needs to do a better job staying balanced and establishing a running game after more than twice as many passes compared to runs last Saturday. This will be an interesting week to try that with Belton’s status in doubt.
Before the season, many were torn about this game. It was thought to be the contest that could determine whether Penn State could emerge undefeated from out-of-conference play. After last Saturday’s defeat, the game has taken on new meaning and importance as O’Brien searches for his first head coaching victory and the Nittany Lions aim to maintain the opportunity of eventually entering Big Ten play over .500. To accomplish this, they will have to show up in the second half and make some key plays that they could not convert last week.
By the numbers: The Penn State offensive line allowed the same amount of sacks that the Virginia defense recorded last week: Zero. Will this hold true after Saturday?
Blast from the Past: These teams last met in November of 2002 with the Nittany Lions winning 35-14 at Beaver Stadium. The most recent meeting in Charlottesville did not go so well as Virginia won 20-14 in December 2001. The game was originally scheduled for mid-September but was moved after the events of September 11th.
Check back tomorrow morning for notes on injuries, weather, and media coverage.