Much of the national focus when Penn State visits Virginia on Saturday will be on the implications of Coach Bill O’Brien’s first road game and the reaction the Nittany Lions inspire in Charlottesville. But if earning another bowl bid is the measure of success for Virginia football this season, there might not be a more important game on the Cavaliers’ schedule.
With road games at Georgia Tech and TCU looming the next two weeks, Virginia may need some margin for error as the season progresses, and a nationally televised noon kickoff against a wounded Penn State team could provide just that. The Nittany Lions, a bowl team last year, opened the season with a 24-14 loss to Ohio and their depth appears to be affected by the personnel losses they’ve suffered since unprecedented NCAA sanctions were levied at the end of July.
Virginia, meanwhile, is coming off a relatively easy 43-19 victory over Richmond to begin the year, a game in which the Cavaliers’ offense racked up 545 yards and saw 11 players catch at least one pass. That sort of diversity should present trouble for a Penn State defense that broke down in the second half last week, allowing touchdowns drives of 82, 70 and 93 yards.
“We’re gonna be expecting their best game,” defensive end Jake Snyder said. “They want to get their first win as much as we want to get our second one.”
The key unit for Virginia this week, and perhaps the rest of the season, will be its inexperienced secondary. Scrutinized during the offseason, this should be their first real test after Richmond orchestrated touchdown drives of 87 and 65 yards against the Cavaliers’ first-team defense, mostly via short passes. Penn State showed signs last week that it has turned to the dual-tight end formations that O’Brien used with the New England Patriots the past few seasons, and the pressure will be on Virginia’s sophomore safeties (Brandon Phelps and Anthony Harris) to improve their coverage calls from a week ago.
But the Nittany Lions struggled to finish off drives a week ago, advancing into Ohio territory six times and coming away with just two touchdowns. O’Brien announced Thursday on his weekly radio show that senior Derek Day will start at running back with sophomore Bill Belton nursing an ankle injury. Penn State’s only other senior at a skill position is quarterback Matt McGloin, but O’Brien said this week he’d like to have more balance in his offense after throwing the ball 48 times against Ohio.
To me, the winner of this game will have the more effective rushing attack, because both teams will be able to move the ball through the air. That bodes well for Perry Jones, Kevin Parks and Virginia’s elite tackles, Oday Aboushi and Morgan Moses, and the near-sellout crowd expected at Scott Stadium should put the Cavaliers over the top.
My prediction: Virginia 27, Penn State 21.
But what do you think? Can Virginia score its most significant nonconference victory since a 2007 win over Pittsburgh? Or will Penn State give O’Brien his first career victory? Vote in the poll below and let me know what you think the final score will be in the comments section.