CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — As Sam Ficken’s fourth missed field goal attempt of the afternoon sailed wide of the goalposts with no time left on the clock, Virginia’s football team poured out onto the field in celebration of a 17-16 victory over visiting Penn State.
Virginia won, but it didn’t really deserve to. But neither did Penn State.
Both clubs were self-destructive all afternoon, and in the end the football team with more promise prevailed. But the jubilation flowing through the veins of the Cavaliers will soon harden, as game film awaits them in the next couple of days. That won’t be pretty.
And let’s face it, had Ficken made just one more kick Penn State likely would have been the ones going bananas on the field – its strong turnout of fans doing the same in the stands – celebrating the first recognized win for the program since 1999, thanks to an NCAA investigation that canceled out all victories over the last decade-plus and has rendered this once-proud program to the status of Public Enemy No. 1.
Penn State must continue on, and as one Virginia fan yelled right after the game ended, maybe this is “Penn State’s new karma.”
Penn State held Virginia to 295 yards, forced four turnovers, three of which gave it possession in the red zone, and the Cavaliers were flagged 10 times. Even this Penn State team, that lost only a handful of transfers after the NCAA’s probation was handed down, should have capitalized. But it didn’t.
“We just have to get back to work on Monday and keep working hard,” said Penn State coach Bill O’Brien, who didn’t appear interested in bad mouthing his team in any way. “These kids left it all out there today, there’s no question about that … We’ll break through.”
Rain also helped the home team. Not a drop fell from the sky until the final moments of the contest, and it was at its hardest when Ficken lined up for the possible game-winner which wasn’t. So chalk up another grace of goodness for the Wahoos.
“I think we’re resilient,” said linebacker Steve Greer, who was in on 15 tackles, including two sacks. “We did some of that last season and I think every part of our program is geared towards that. No matter what, we’re no easy out.”
With all of that said, Virginia wasn’t the better football team on this day but is probably a better team overall. Penn State was almost certain to play at a higher level than in last week’s 24-14 home loss to Ohio. The emotional investment in that game likely tapped the Lions by the second half. Today was normalcy times-100 for the Penn State kids.
But, the problems with Penn State are clear: It has skill position issues and isn’t exactly fast defensively. It could also use a more gifted signal caller. Virginia applied plenty of pressure to Nittany Lion quarterbacks for much of the afternoon, even knocking out starter Matt McGloin for a few series in one stretch.
Combined, McGloin and backup Steven Bench completed 21-of-42 pass attempts for 205 yards.
Virginia quarterback Michael Rocco also left the game, as ballyhooed Alabama transfer Phillip Sims went into the game for two series beginning in the third quarter. But it ended with him fumbling to give Penn State the ball at Virginia’s 17-yard-line. PSU took a 16-10 lead moments later.
But Rocco redeemed himself, coming back in on the next possession, and 12 plays and 86 yards later the Cavaliers scored the game’s final points. It was the only time all day Rocco and the rest of the offense looked in sync. And it was enough.
“We weren’t clicking on all cylinders, but enough to eek out a win here,” London said.
Boos cascaded down from the stands when Penn State ran out onto the field moments before the opening kickoff. It was twice as loud as the fireworks-induced cheers Virginia received.
But the celebration at the end had nothing to do with an ugly NCAA scandal or anything personal, it was about football. And for the Cavaliers, it was a good win, regardless of Penn State’s issues.