By: C.J. Doon
After an incredibly difficult eight months following the worst scandal in collegiate sports history, Bill O’Brien wanted to give his players something special. For the first time in the program’s 125-year history, names were adorned on the back of Penn State’s uniforms. O’Brien said, “We want our fans to know and recognize these young men. They have stuck together during tough times, and I commend them for the leadership they have shown.”
The tough times are continuing for Penn State.
After dominating the Cavaliers all afternoon, the Nittany Lions surrendered a touchdown with 1:28 left to play in the fourth quarter to give Virginia a 17-16 lead. Senior quarterback Matt McGloin willed the Lions down the field to Virginia’s 25-yard line, setting up a potential game-winning field goal for sophomore kicker Sam Ficken with :01 second remaining.
A team desperate for something to smile about, for something to cheer about, for a reason to proudly proclaim themselves as “victors”, once again fell short, and this time in dramatic fashion. Penn State is 0-2 for the first time since 2002, and now the burden falls upon Coach Bill O’Brien to pick up the pieces.
The Lions got off to a tremendous start yet again, scoring on their first possession and completely erasing any doubt that they were still suffering from last week’s loss to Ohio. The 17-play, 75-yard drive, culminating in an 8-yard touchdown reception by tight end Kyle Carter from Matt McGloin, chewed up 6:27 of the clock and gave Penn State some early momentum. The defense fed off of that momentum, creating two turnovers and holding the Cavaliers to a measly three points in the first half.
But UVA’s offense would not be held down for long. Virginia quarterback Mike Rocco was able to shake off some early rust, and marched the Cavaliers down the field to start the second half. Rocco found receiver Jeremiah Mathis in the endzone for a touchdown, taking a 10-7 lead with 9:22 to go in the third quarter.
Penn State answered with an impressive drive of their own, highlighted by Matt McGloin’s pass over the middle to Alex Kenney for 23 yards on a 3rd and 10 from the PSU 25. Before the play, McGloin replaced freshman quarterback Steven Bench, who came in to lead the offense after McGloin exited the game with an elbow injury. Bench did a nice job filling in, but McGloin’s presence immediately kick-started the stagnant offense. Penn State drove down to the UVA three-yard line, where Sam Ficken lined up for a 20 yard chip-shot to tie the game.
Unfazed by the struggles of the young kicker, the Lions battled back, taking a 13-10 lead after McGloin hit a diving Allen Robinson for a 30-yard strike early in the 4th quarter. On Virginia’s next possession, Deion Barnes forced a fumble that Penn State recovered on the UVA 17-yard line. The offense stalled once again in the red zone, but this time Sam Ficken was able to connect on a 32 yard field goal to give the Lions a 16-10 lead.
The kicker had his confidence back, the defense was swarming, and everything seemed to be going right for Lions. On a 3rd and 16 from the UVA 22-yard line with 5:00 minutes remaining, the Lions needed one stop, and the game was theirs. Mike Rocco took the snap, avoided a sack, and heaved a ball deep down the field into double coverage. Unbelievably, tight end Jake McGee leapt between two Penn State safeties, and with one hand brought the ball down at the PSU 34-yard line. Even McGee himself was surprised he made the catch, saying, “I somehow came down with it. I don’t know how I came down with it, but it stuck.” 6 plays later, on another 3rd down, Rocco stood tall in the pocket and delivered a six-yard strike to McGee for a touchdown with 1:28 left to play. The kid who grew up rooting for Penn State drove a dagger into the heart of Nittany Nation, and propelled the Cavaliers to an impressive 2-0 start to the season.
Once again, a game where the Lions had the lead ended in defeat. Missed opportunities were aplenty, as Sam Ficken whiffed on four field goals, and the offense was only able to come away with three points on drives following the four Virginia turnovers.
Coach O’Brien refused to reflect on the mistakes, saying “I think there are a lot of positives. I think these kids play extremely hard and I’m very proud to be associated with them and I really appreciate their effort. They really emptied the tank today.” Cornerback Stephon Morris defended his teammates, including kicker Sam Ficken, saying “We’re all going through the same thing…It’s not his fault. You can’t blame one person.”
Even after the sting of two heartbreaking losses, the team remains optimistic. Wide receiver Alex Kenny said, “One thing you’re going to figure out about this team is we’re never going to give up.”
With their backs against the wall, Penn State returns home to Beaver Stadium next week to face Navy at 12 PM Eastern Time on ESPN. The Lions will be looking for their first win of the season, and the first under new head coach Bill O’Brien.