CHARLOTTESVILLE — Virginia quarterback Michael Rocco could’ve given up after his only interception. He could’ve mailed it in when Virginia Coach Mike London yanked him from the game late in the third quarter following a fumbled snap. He could’ve accepted a Cavaliers loss.
Instead, Rocco found tight end Jake McGee and got a lucky break from Penn State’s place kicker.
With the junior quarterback making plays when it counted most, the Cavaliers escaped with a dramatic 17-16 victory over the Nittany Lions on Saturday in front of 56,087 at Scott Stadium.
Virginia’s game-winning points came when Rocco hit McGee for a six-yard touchdown pass with 1 minute 28 seconds remaining. It turned into the deciding moment when Penn State’s Sam Ficken hooked a 42-yard field goal wide left as time expired, part of a nightmarish afternoon in which Ficken missed four field goals and had an extra point blocked.
Rocco completed 21 of 33 passes for 258 yards, with two touchdowns and an interception, and completed all six of his pass attempts on Virginia’s final drive. It included a 35-yard completion to McGee (four catches for 99 yards) on third and 16 that the tight end brought in one-handed as a Penn State defender interfered with him.
“If he doesn’t make that, the game’s probably over,” London said.
But after the nerve-wracking final sequence, all the talk surrounded London’s decision to pull Rocco late in the third quarter in favor of Alabama transfer Phillip Sims. The decision came after Rocco fumbled a snap, Virginia’s third turnover on a day when it mostly struggled offensively.
Sims, though, was ineffective on two drives, orchestrating a three-and-out and fumbling on his last snap. London then reinserted Rocco, emphasizing during his postgame news conference that it was the plan all along. London said he made the move in order to allow Rocco to “look at what’s going on, to watch the game.”
“We have another quarterback that’s a good quarterback that you have to give opportunities to, and there was no, ‘You’re coming out because you’re bad’ or anything like that,” he added.
Rocco reacted diplomatically when asked about the temporary demotion.
“My job is to be a leader in whatever way possible. So whenever I was taken out of the game, I’m a leader from the sideline and I did that to the best of my ability,” said Rocco, who split time with backup quarterback David Watford at times last season. “When I got put back in the game, my job was to make plays and get the ball into the hands of playmakers and that’s what I try to do. . . . I trusted the coaches’ decision.”
The quarterbacks weren’t the only issue offensively, though. Virginia gained just 32 yards rushing, the fewest it has had in a victory since October 2005 and committed 10 penalties. But it was the Cavaliers’ four turnovers (three fumbles, one interception) that should have done them in.
Penn State, playing its first road game since being hit with unprecedented NCAA sanctions in July, started drives inside the Cavaliers 30-yard line all four times because of Virginia miscues. But the Nittany Lions were held to minus-14 yards and three points on those possessions.
Virginia defensive coordinator Jim Reid “really emphasizes that when you’re pinned against a wall, your back’s against the wall, that you can create the identity of your defense,” said linebacker Steve Greer, who finished with a career-high 15 tackles. “So we went out with that mind-set every time, that we were gonna bend but not break.”
But Virginia’s defense wasn’t perfect, and Penn State took a 16-10 lead early in the fourth quarter when quarterback Matt McGloin found wide receiver Allen Robinson streaking past Cavaliers defensive backs Demetrious Nicholson and Anthony Harris on a 30-yard touchdown pass.
That, though, only set the stage for Rocco’s back-from-the-brink heroics.
Rocco said that as Ficken’s potential game-winning field goal sailed through the air, he just prayed that the kick “was happening for a reason.” Cavaliers offensive coordinator Bill Lazor, who indicated Rocco’s brief benching was London’s call, responded along the same lines as he praised the resolve shown by his embattled quarterback.
“I guess for Michael, if it’s just smooth sailing all the time, it wouldn’t feel like Virginia football,” Lazor said. “Sometimes it’s his doing and he’d tell you. And sometimes it’s nothing to do with him. . . . You’re the quarterback, that’s what you have to shoulder. It’s the burden.
“It’s why it takes a special guy, and Mike’s a special guy.”