Virginia's defense rescues offense in victory over Penn State

Virginia's victory formula Saturday was just as convention suggested: The Cavaliers' resilient defense bailed out their clumsy offense.

Not buying it? Saved all the preseason mags and Googled all the summer blogs that pegged Virginia as a potent offense and suspect defense?


Well, perhaps those near-universal assessments will be accurate in the macro. In the micro, against an opponent that must be wondering what malady is next, the "book" on the Cavaliers could not have been more mistaken.

Virginia's defense, in tandem with an acrobatic tight end and Penn State's agonizingly inaccurate placekicker, overcame a litany of ills: the offense's four turnovers and anemic rushing attack; ten penalties; and some ill-advised quarterback juggling.


The Cavaliers survived 17-16 only when Sam Ficken missed a 42-yard field goal attempt on the final snap. Ficken, pressed into the lineup when All-Big Ten kicker Anthony Fera transferred to Texas after offseason NCAA sanctions, made 1-of-5 field goals and had an extra point blocked.

Virginia's escape also hinged on sophomore tight end Jake McGee. For the second time in as many games this season, he pinned the "wow" meter, leaping to snare Michael Rocco's third-and-16, fourth-quarter heave.

All McGee did on the play was outwork Penn State safeties Jake Fagnano and Stephen Obeng-Agyapong, one of whom was flagged for interference, gain 44 yards and preserve the 86-yard, game-winning drive.

"I don't know how I came down with it, but it stuck," said McGee, a 6-foot-5 former prep basketball player from Richmond's Collegiate School.


"If he doesn't make that (catch), the game's probably over," Cavaliers coach Mike London said.

McGee's 6-yard scoring reception with 1:28 remaining, again on third down, was as routine — feet firmly on the ground — as it was fitting.

"He makes those catches all the time in practice," offensive coordinator Bill Lazor said. "We know now we can count on him."

McGee and receiver Darius Jennings have been the only reliable weapons in Virginia's 2-0 start.

The acclaimed and experienced offensive line? Penn State smothered tailbacks Perry Jones and Kevin Parks and sacked Rocco twice and backup Phillip Sims once.

The Rocco-Sims quarterback tandem? They combined for three turnovers Saturday.

This against a defense that forced no turnovers and yielded 499 yards in last week's opening loss to Ohio.

"There's no doubt we're going to be disappointed in our production," center Luke Bowanko said.


Worse than the production was the four giveaways, all inside Virginia's 30. But in Penn State's four subsequent drives, thanks to the likes of linebacker Steve Greer (15 tackles and two sacks), the Cavaliers allowed three points and minus-14 yards.

"That is incredible," cornerbacks coach Chip West said.

It's also drawing-to-an-inside-straight lucky. Two of Ficken's four misses followed Virginia turnovers.

"Maybe we got into his head," London said. "Maybe he just missed them. I don't know."

London risked getting into Rocco's head, too, when he benched the incumbent late in the third quarter.

Yes, the Nittany Lions had just recovered a botched center exchange. But the Cavaliers led 10-7, and on the drive previous, Rocco had guided them 77 yards to their first touchdown.

The Sims substitution worked like a 7th-grade chemistry experiment. He nearly threw a pick-six before losing a fumble on a sack.

London then returned to Rocco — and should stick with him until the straits are truly dire. Rocco was far from his best, but with the game in the balance, he converted four third downs ranging from 5 to 16 yards.

Still, Penn State had plenty of time. And the Nittany Lions darn near won when Matt McGloin hit Allen Robinson on a slant at the Cavaliers' 41.

But freshman nickel back Maurice Canady wrapped up Robinson, who was one broken tackle from six points.

"Held on for life," West said.

Seconds later, with rain starting to fall, Ficken lined up from 42 yards out.

"It was reminiscent of the Florida State game last year," Bowanko said. "Whoever turned on the rain machine probably helped us."

Indeed, last November in Tallahassee, FSU's Dustin Hopkins missed a last-second kick from the same distance in Virginia's 14-13 victory.

Ficken's attempt, like Hopkins', sailed wide left, a breathtaking punch for a program that has absorbed so many since the Jerry Sandusky scandal broke.

"I don't know if I was watching," London said, "to tell you the truth."

David Teel can be reached at 757-247-4636 or by email at For more from Teel, read his blog at teeltime and follow him at