Virginia vs. Penn State: 5 Keys to a Cavalier Victory over the Nittany Lions
The Virginia Cavaliers got off to a good start in 2012 with a 43-19 win over Richmond, and the reward for the third straight opening victory under head coach Mike London is a showdown with the Nittany Lions of Penn State.
When these two team last played in Charlottesville in 2001, the entire landscape of college football was different. Virgina's upset of the top-25 Nittany Lions catapulted the program to a 9-5 record and second place ACC finish in 2002.
This time around, Penn State is the one looking for the springboard victory after a humbling loss to the Ohio Bobcats. Coach Bill O'Brien and the boys know that their season could hinge on this game—a victory puts them back on track but a loss will throw them deeper into the cellar.
So what does Virginia have to do to rise above all the drama surrounding the Penn State program and come away with a 2-0 start to 2012?
Here are some suggestions.
Pressure the Quarterback
Virginia's biggest question mark is its secondary.
Opponents are sure to test the coverage abilities of a unit playing four sophomores, many of whom have very little game experience.
Penn State quarterback Matt McGloin would love a chance at redemption after his performance against the Ohio Bobcats.
It's not that his numbers were that poor—27-of-48 for 260 yards isn't bad at all—but the Nittany Lions could not convert in the second half when it mattered most. Receivers dropped passes and the injury to Bill Belton did not help.
Still, Penn State will clearly want to try and stretch the field.
That means Virginia must do a good job pressuring McGloin and making him uncomfortable in the pocket. Linebacker Steve Greer had some good blitzes on Richmond quarterback John Laub, but LaRoy Reynolds may be the key.
His speed and tenacity make him a leader on defense and a key to bailing out a young secondary.
Don't Leave Points off the Board
Virginia has been far from an offensive juggernaut in the past decade.
Yet that is exactly what the Cavaliers will need to be if they want to reach a bowl game this year.
Despite scoring 43 points in the season opener, Virginia players felt like they had left points on the table. Coach Mike London reiterated this point when he emphasized that his team's offense still had "a long way to go".
Virginia cannot rely on field goals to take down Penn State, even if the Nittany Lions have been offensively challenged the past few years. The Cavaliers do not want to get into a close game where one play could make the difference.
Virginia also has so much inexperience in the kicking game that a close result could prove dangerous. Virginia has to use its offensive weapons to finish drives and keep a healthy margin if they want to avoid a nail-biter.
Run Baby Run!
Virginia has perhaps the deepest backfield in the ACC.
Everybody knows about the overall talent of senior running back Perry Jones. His Reggie Bush-like speed and versatility make him someone that must be accounted for on every play.
Kevin Parks has proven to be a tough-running, physical back who continues to get in the end zone early and often for the Cavaliers. His biggest score, the game-winner against Florida State, shows that he can put the team on his back when the time comes.
Behind Parks and Jones are Clifton Richardson and Khalek Shepherd. During Richardson's hamstring issue, Shepherd has shown some real promise.
None of these guys have to be All-Americans, but their talent allows coach Mike London to play the shell game and constantly rotate them in and out.
With all its the strength and speed, most teams will not be looking forward to trying to contain that group of backs for four full quarters.
Avoid Penalties and Turnovers
In his first season as head coach of the Cavaliers, Mike London's team was not only the most penalized team in the ACC but one of the worst in the country.
That lack of discipline resulted in a paltry 4-8 record with only one ACC win.
Last year, Virginia cleaned up its act by finishing 7th in the ACC with an average of just over 42 penalty yards per game.
In this year's opener against Richmond, the Cavaliers had only three penalties for 26 yards.
Considering the amount of young players thrown into the mix, particularly in the second half, that is quite a statement.
Virginia does not need to give Penn State extra opportunities with defensive penalties and turnovers. The Cavaliers have never been takeaway machines and the inexperience on defense can only add to those concerns.
While the offense has plenty of talent, quarterback Michael Rocco had some dangerously wobbly passes against Richmond that the Nittany Lions could certainly snare if given the opportunity.
Turnovers are the great equalizer and Virginia has to make sure the margin stays in their favor.
Don't Get Distracted
This is the first road game Penn State will play since the Jerry Sandusky scandal, and no one really knows what to expect on Saturday.
How will the Virginia fans react? What will Penn State fans do in this hostile environment?
Football can create a very tense and nasty atmosphere. Virginia has to remember that its job is to focus on the field and not be concerned with what is going on off of it. A week's worth of uncomfortable questions from the media makes that more difficult.
Penn State will undoubtedly be focused.
They know that nothing they can do will change the horrible crimes committed in Happy Valley, but these players want to end their college careers on a good note.
The Nittany Lions are seeking to heal some of their wounds and although football may not be the best salve, it is one that could certainly sting Virginia if they are not careful.