The Virginia Cavaliers have faced questions all season about their ability to stop the run. On Saturday at No. 19 Penn State, their answer could determine the outcome of the game.
Fueled by senior tailback Larry Johnson, who has broken the program's single-game rushing record twice in the past three games, the Nittany Lions (6-3) average nearly 200 rushing yards, which is about what the Virginia defense -- ranked 106th in the nation against the run -- allows.
Johnson "will be a tremendous challenge," U-Va. Coach Al Groh said. "That one particular facet of their team, alone, has the potential to set the whole tone for the game."
Then again, the Cavaliers (6-3) have proven this season that statistical advantages don't always result in an advantage on the scoreboard. They were outgained offensively in each of the past six games, but won five of them by avoiding penalties, creating turnovers and favorable field position and holding opponents to field goals instead of touchdowns. Virginia ranks 71st in the nation in points allowed -- 31 spots higher than it ranks in yards allowed.
"Statistically it's kind of disappointing, but I think in the flow of the game, we play pretty good run defense," sophomore defensive end Chris Canty said. "We make plays when we have to, when it's absolutely necessary. I'd definitely like to get that average down a little bit."
In front of Johnson, the Nittany Lions deploy a 260-pound fullback and the biggest, most experienced offensive line Virginia has seen since Aug. 31 against Florida State. Their counterparts on the defensive line, led by seniors Michael Haynes and Jimmy Kennedy, have combined for 421/2 tackles for a loss and 151/2 sacks.
"They pretty much look like most coaches would like their team to look," Groh said.
The Cavaliers also will have to adjust to playing at Beaver Stadium, which has an official capacity of 107,282, second in the country to Michigan Stadium. It is expected to be the largest crowd Virginia has played before.
Groh acknowledged the size of the crowd is "an unusual circumstance" the Cavaliers will have to deal with, but he and his players theorized that 100,000 opposing fans can't be too much louder than the 80,000 they encounter every year at Clemson and Florida State.
"I'm pretty sure it's not that much difference," said junior cornerback Art Thomas, one of six Cavaliers who grew up in Pennsylvania. "Eighty thousand people sure sounds like a heck of a lot of people."
Said senior safety Jerton Evans: "I'm excited. I loved playing at Florida State. There's just something about playing at an opponent's field that makes you rise to the occasion."
Saturday's game was rescheduled from its original date of Sept. 7, so Virginia could fit in a game with South Carolina. Almost a year after the switch was announced, Penn State Coach Joe Paterno remains peeved, claiming the Cavaliers used "shenanigans" to put the game after their second bye week.
"They had a week off and everything played out to their advantage," said Paterno, whose team also got Wisconsin and Michigan coming off bye weeks this season. "There is nothing I can do about that. We just have to try to keep our momentum. We are playing well, and I hope we can continue to play well because Virginia is good, young and getting better every week."
Cavaliers Notes: Junior quarterback Matt Schaub, who surpassed the Virginia season completions record in the 23-15 loss at Georgia Tech two weeks ago, has 20 touchdown passes, one shy of Shawn Moore's 1990 record. "We had him at [summer] camp and really liked him, but could not afford to give him a scholarship," Paterno said of the West Chester, Pa., native. . . . U-Va. defensive coordinator Al Golden played at Penn State from 1988 to '91 and served as linebackers coach there in 2000. . . . Virginia and Penn State first met in 1893 but have played only five times since: 1954-55, 1988-89 and 2001.