Virginia defensive end Jake Snyder knew he was about to watch film of first-year Penn State Coach Bill O’Brien’s previous coaching stop, but that didn’t remove any of the shock when game tape of last year’s New England Patriots came on the television screen earlier this week.
“You watch college tight ends and then you watch [the Patriots’ Rob] Gronkowski, so it’s a little different,” Snyder said with a smile. “We definitely have to prepare for that stuff.”
Unfamiliarity could very well be the toughest opponent Virginia’s defense faces this week. O’Brien, the Patriots offensive coordinator under Coach Bill Belichick the last four seasons, has just one game under his belt at Penn State – a 24-14 loss to Ohio on Saturday — and the Cavaliers are trying to glean as much information from that as possible all while guessing what more O’Brien could break out this week.
If the season opener was any indication, the Nittany Lions will be leaning on senior quarterback Matt McGloin. Penn State threw the ball 48 times against Ohio, and Virginia Coach Mike London said this week he already noticed O’Brien using his tight ends in a similar fashion to the way he deployed Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez for New England last season.
But the Nittany Lions were held scoreless in the second half against the Bobcats, and London is expecting more running plays from Penn State this weekend. It’s easy to forget that O’Brien is still adjusting to life without running back Silas Redd and wide receiver Justin Turner, both of whom decided to transfer last month because of Penn State’s NCAA sanctions.
“We’ve got to be more balanced, and that starts with me,” O’Brien said. “Hindsight being 20/20, I’d like to say we would not throw it 50 and run it 20, we’d like to be more balanced.”
When Penn State did throw the ball Saturday, it was mostly the sort of short-yardage completions that kept Virginia’s defensive line at bay in its season-opening win over Richmond. After emphasizing quarterback pressure in training camp, the Cavaliers had no sacks against the Spiders.
Facing another quick passing attack is “not particularly what you like to see” as a defensive lineman, Snyder admitted. But London is optimistic his defensive line — and specifically defensive ends like Snyder, senior Bill Schautz and freshmen Eli Harold and Mike Moore — is poised to wreak havoc this season, particularly because the Cavaliers are rotating in as many as 10 players during a given game.
“It’s good to have that depth to get you more rest,” Snyder said. “Yeah, we want to be out there every play, but we understand we’re not gonna be 100 percent if we’re playing 65 snaps per game.”
A more productive line would also help a young secondary that is still transitioning to playing on a big stage. The Cavaliers had their moments defending the pass Saturday, but at times Richmond’s short crossing routes confounded Virginia’s previously untested defensive backs.
London said after the game some crossed signals and miscommunication led to many of the breakdowns, and safety Anthony Harris believes they were the result of “things just moving fast.”
Harris, the team’s free safety, added that he will need to improve his recognition skills facing O’Brien, whose offensive scheme features plenty of pre-snap shifts by the tight end and a multitude of formations. The key, he said, will be knowing personnel and identifying where they line up in certain situations.
With or without Gronkowski in the lineup, Virginia seems up for the challenge.
“It may be a different offense than we’ve faced or may haven’t seen as much of it, but at the same time it’s still football to us,” Harris said. “We’re just gonna go in there and try and attack it.”