Virginia football vs. Penn State: Cavs, Nittany Lions unsure of what to expect


Virginia might not get as many chances to celebrate against Penn State as it did last weekend against Richmond. (Sabrina Schaeffer/Associated Press)
September 7, 2012

When Virginia football Coach Mike London caught wind of the unprecedented NCAA sanctions levied at Penn State in July, his phone wouldn’t stop ringing.

Recruits and coaches from the high school and college ranks wanted to know how the Cavaliers would approach the situation. London even heard from coaching colleagues who had already booked tickets on flights to State College, Pa., in hopes of luring players to transfer to their schools.

The NCAA created what London called an “open market” by suspending transfer restrictions for Penn State players who wanted to leave, but the Cavaliersmostly stayed out of that fray. Instead, Virginia preferred to show interest only in Nittany Lions recruits they had previously recruited.

Even when Damascus High linebacker Zach Bradshaw switched his oral commitment from Penn State to Virginia last month, the initial contact in that scenario was made by one of Bradshaw’s coaches. When it came down to it, “You felt bad for Coach [Bill] O’Brien,” London said this week.

“I couldn’t imagine having to deal with that, and keeping the guys loyal, keeping the guys wanting to come to the school. . . . He’s got a tough job.”

That is the overriding sentiment as Virginia prepares to face Penn State on Saturday in Charlottesville, the Nittany Lions’ first road game since former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky was convicted on 45 counts of child sex abuse and the football program was hit with a four-year bowl ban and scholarship reductions.

It’s an important game for both teams. The Cavaliers hope to start the season 2-0 with looming road games at Georgia Tech and TCU the next two weeks; Penn State is coming off a season-opening loss to Ohio.

The off-field circumstances surrounding the Nittany Lions’ season can’t be ignored.

With Penn State on the schedule this year, many Virginia players paid close attention to media reports on the scandal during the offseason. They’re trying to treat the game like any other, with designs on defeating a brand-name foe in nonconference play. But there’s empathy for the players who will line up opposite them at Scott Stadium.

“It’s pretty honorable with what they’ve done,” Virginia defensive end Jake Snyder said. “The NCAA made it pretty obvious that they can get out and they can go to a different school and play with no hesitation, no problem, and those guys stuck by the school and the program that they love and that’s something that’s pretty awesome.”

London believes playing the games represents the only “non-distraction” Penn State enjoys these days. O’Brien, who is beginning his first season as the successor to former coach Joe Paterno, went one step further when he said this week, “There’s an element of that, just being able to get on a plane and go play at Virginia.”

What reception the Nittany Lions receive will also be a point of intrigue Saturday. A near-sellout crowd is expected at Scott Stadium, and Penn State’s players and coaches are expecting the worst despite the venue’s docile reputation in recent years.

“We have said since Day One when all this stuff broke out that road games are going to be brutal for us,” Nittany Lions fullback Michael Zordich said.

For Virginia, Saturday is the first real test of the year after a 43-19 victory over Richmond to open the season. Its young secondary will have to deal with O’Brien’s NFL-style offense and quarterback Michael Rocco might have to pass the Cavaliers to a victory again if the Nittany Lions’ defense focuses on slowing down Virginia’s trio of tailbacks.

But perhaps more important, the game will be on national television because of all the attention being paid to Penn State. And whether Virginia is comfortable with it or not, the Nittany Lions’ troubles could be a boon for London and company.

“You just have to love the spotlight. We talk about it all the time. You have to love the pressure in that situation,” tight end Paul Freedman said. “All the eyes are on you so it’s a great situation to show what you have.”

Mark Giannotto covers high school sports for The Washington Post.
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