Penn State vs. Virginia: Keys to a Nittany Lions Upset over the Cavaliers

Tyler Conway@jtylerconwayFeatured ColumnistSeptember 8, 2012

STATE COLLEGE, PA - SEPTEMBER 01: Quarterback Matthew McGloin #11 of the Penn State Nittany Lions talks with head coach Bill O'Brien during the first half at Beaver Stadium on September 1, 2012 in State College, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Rob Carr/Getty Images

After a disappointing 24-14 loss against Ohio in the opening week of the Bill O'Brien era, the Penn State Nittany Lions head to Charlottesville to take on the Virginia Cavaliers.

O'Brien is hoping to avoid the school's first 0-2 start since 2001, but comes into Saturday's game with a myriad of problems. The program's off-field downfall is well-documented in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal and the NCAA sanctions. 

However it's the team's dearth of talent that was on full display against Ohio last week—especially on offense. Penn State gained just 351 yards on offense and turned the ball over three times against a Bobcats defense that was inconsistent throughout last season.

For the Nittany Lions, a win on Saturday would be a massive step toward rebuilding the program and provide a huge confidence boost for the team in preparation for next week's home contest against Navy.

With that in mind, here's a look at how Penn State can pull off the upset against Virginia.


Aggressive Offensive Playcalling

It seemed obvious from the first snap that O'Brien knows that he has limited capabilities at the quarterback position. Matt McGloin threw the ball 48 times against Ohio last week, but most of those were small, check-down passes that were obviously the focus of the game plan.

Considering top returning receivers Justin Brown and Devon Smith transferred to Oklahoma and Marshall, respectively, being conservative was probably prudent Week 1.

McGloin is prone to over-aggression and often tries fitting balls into windows that seemingly were barely there at all. With the senior still getting accustomed to his new receivers, opening the playbook could have led to more turnovers than the three Penn State had last week. 

But for the Nittany Lions to have any chance against Virginia, they will need at least one momentum-shifting play on Saturday.


Establish the Running Game Early

Though Bill Belton's 4.1 yards per carry average last week is respectable, he was wholly unspectacular throughout the contest. With the sophomore back not making the trip to Virginia due to an ankle injury, O'Brien's rushing attack will be left up to former walk-on Derek Day. 

A local kid from Bellefonte, Pa., Day is a fifth-year senior who slowly worked his way up the depth chart during his time in Happy Valley.

And for his team to come out on top, Day will have to be effective early and often against Virginia. If he's able to break off a big run early and gain confidence, it will force the Cavaliers' safeties to move up, thus opening the field for the passing game. 

A big play is necessary for Penn State to win, but setting it up through the run is the most important factor. 


Force Interceptions on Defense

After going 25-of-37 for 311 yards and a touchdown against Richmond last week, Cavaliers quarterback Michael Rocco will look for another huge performance against the Nittany Lions on Saturday.

That cannot happen if Penn State hopes to compete.

The junior signal-caller was prone to turnovers and ineffectiveness throughout last season, throwing just 13 touchdowns against 12 interceptions. Forcing at least one drive-killing turnover by getting Rocco back on the interception bandwagon is critical to Penn State's desired success. 

However, after allowing Ohio quarterback Tyler Tettleton to go 31-of-41 for 324 yards and two touchdowns last week, that task may be easier said than done.