Virginia, Penn State try to focus amidst circus
SEP 07, 2012 4:34p ET
The school that was founded by Thomas Jefferson has always prided itself on having a dignity above other public institutions, of being what many consider a "Public Ivy" – a notion that Virginia is the equal to an Ivy League school – and for having one of the truly unique and historic campuses in the nation. Though don't call it a campus around Charlottesville, it's known more as "The Grounds."
Only every so often are the school's fox hunters challenged to let down their hair and get frothy at the mouth, and that's usually reserved for when football rivals North Carolina and Virginia Tech come to town.
That will be challenged on a different level Saturday when Penn State visits Charlottesville for a football game that might not be the top story of the day at Scott Stadium.
Penn State has gone from one of the most respected collegiate sports programs in the nation 11 months ago to the most disgraced in NCAA history after former defensive coordinator and long-time pal of the late legendary Penn State coach Joe Paterno was convicted on 45 counts of child sex abuse this past summer. A subsequent report filed by former FBI director Louis Freeh revealed that Paterno and other high-ranking PSU officials knew of his actions yet went to great lengths to cover them up for the sake of the football program.
The NCAA stepped in and delivered Penn State a series of penalties that will cripple the program for years. The Nittany Lions opened their season at home last weekend, but now they must hit the road, and the general belief is trips away from Happy Valley won't be so happy in how anyone representing the Penn State program is treated.
"We've said since day one that road games are going to be pretty brutal for us," Penn State fullback Michael Zordich said this week. "That's something we have to deal with. Typically, even when you're not in our situation, that's how road games are."
Virginia coach Mike London wasn't sure what Virginia's administration might do in addition to its normal security for this game. That it starts at noon will help, as tailgaters won't have a great deal of time to load up on bourbon, a purported favorite among many Virginians.
"Our game-day operations people and the athletic department, they always give messages to our crowd at the stadium about the conduct and about having guests in the house and things like that," London said. "I would hope and I would think that our crowd would be in it for the game, not for any other reason."
London has also sent a strong message to his team forbidding them of cross the line that might be tantalizingly enticing.
"Part of the decorum of playing college football, particularly here, is having sportsmanship about you," said London, who is in his third season as the head man in Charlottesville.
Penn State coach Bill O'Brien is no stranger to the atmosphere at Virginia. As a former coach at three different stops in the ACC, he's quite familiar. So are Penn State defensive coordinator Ted Roof – a former head coach at Duke – and linebacker coach Ron Vanderlinden, who was the head coach at Maryland in the late 1990s.
"It's a very loud home crowd," O'Brien recalled. "It's a great home advantage for Virginia, and we've got to do a great job this week of practicing with the crowd noise because that's the biggest thing; not what they're yelling, but how loud they are."
Most of O'Brien's previous trips were back when George Welsh was the head coach and Cavalier football was on a roll. The Cavaliers were nationally relevant – they even rose to No. 1 in the nation in 1990 – and Scott Stadium was always full and loud.
But apathy set in during the Al Groh years, and London, who is in his third season, has the ship headed in the right direction, and the fans are noticing. In addition to this being Penn State's first road game and the emotions it will engender from the home folks, this is a very important game for Virginia and its credibility as an ACC contender. That's why keeping its players focused amidst the circus that is certainly headed there is so important.
"We understand things that happened, the news that was covered," said London, whose team beat Richmond last week, 43-19. "We understand the tradition of Penn State. We understand the prestige of Penn State.
"In the end, it's a football game we have to be concerned about."