Mother Nature held off as long as she could but it wasn't long enough to help Sam Ficken from having a dreadful afternoon. The Penn State kicker had an extra point blocked in the final quarter of play and was one of five on field goal attempts, no miss bigger than his 42 yarder that sailed wide left as time expired and gave UVa a come-from-behind 17-16 win.
In front of a raucous crowd and with a light rain falling, Ficken lined up in the center of the field but still couldn't connect on a kick that would've given his team the win. Instead, it allowed the Cavaliers to escape with one.
"Percentages say you have a better chance making a kick from the middle of the field than you do from the hash," Penn State head coach Bill O'Brien said. "Just center the ball, something we work on all the time...I think if there were five or 10 more seconds I would have tried to get it closer but it is what it was."
"I don't know that I watched, to tell the truth," UVa head coach Mike London countered.
That Virginia needed Ficken to miss another kick really came down to how poorly the home team executed, from quarterback Michael Rocco all the way through the offense. Thankfully for UVa (2-0), the defense picked them up when that group needed it most.
"Our defense was amazing," wide receiver Darius Jennings said. "Every time we needed them to come up big, they came up bigger."
Rocco finished the day with respectable numbers (21 of 33 passing for 258 yards and a pair of touchdowns). But he was also responsible for an interception inside UVa's 30-yard line and a botched snap not too far away.
In all, the Wahoos turned the ball over four times and only rushed for a net of 32 yards. But it was Steve Greer, Anthony Harris, and Henry Coley who each posted more than 10 tackles for a defense that held PSU to negative 14 yards and yielded just three points following UVa turnovers.
"The team needed everything we had," said Coley, who had 11 tackles, one tackle-for-loss, one pass break up, and a huge blocked kick. "Today, we had to pick the offensive guys up and we never lost focus, we never got down on ourselves. We knew we had this in us, man.
"The defense had to step up today. We started off slow as a team, but the offense stepped up last week and we had to this time."
Penn State opened the game on a grueling 17-play, 75-yard drive that took 6:27 off the board and was capped by an 8-yard touchdown pass from senior Matt McGloin to tight end Kyle Carter. The Cavaliers didn't respond until near the end of the half, when Drew Jarrett connected on a career-long 46-yard field goal with 3:56 left.
In front of 56,087 fans, the Cavs took a 10-7 lead in the third, thanks to Rocco's first TD of the day, a 1-yard connection with tight end Jeremiah Mathis that finished off an 11-play, 77-yard drive.
But what looked at that point as a game Virginia had taken control of quickly became a nail bitter thanks to turnovers and one bad miss on a 30-yard touchdown from McGloin to receiver Allen Robinson on a stutter-go route. Though Ficken's ensuing PAT (which proved to be the final margin of victory) was blocked by Coley, he connected on his lone make of the day with 10:55 left to play. That 32 yarder gave Penn State a 16-10 advantage against an offense that was sputtering.
"A lot of it was self inflicted," London said of the mistakes. "Just doing things to ourselves."
London pulled Rocco with 1:22 left in the third, a move he said was as much about giving Phillip Sims a shot as it was to give Rocco a chance to see things from the sideline. Previously, the junior from Lynchburg and center Luke Bowanko couldn't connect on the snap and gave PSU the ball on the UVa 29-yard line to set up the Ficken field goal.
"To get on the sideline and look at the game a little bit," London said, when asked about the move to put Sims in the game and take Rocco out.
But Sims proved ineffective, unable to generate any real offense on his two series, the second of which ended with a fumble from QB pressure.
"Phillip had two series, he was okay," London said simply. "And then (we) put Michael back in."
With Rocco back at the helm late, the Wahoos began their march for the lead with 8:04 left to play from their own 14-yard line. Two plays later, Rocco and UVa were staring at a 3rd and 5 from the 19 following a sack. He proceeded to go 6-for-6 passing, with two big plays standing out, the rest of the day.
As has apparently become his custom, tight end Jake McGee came up huge in both of those plays. Rocco found McGee for a 44-yard completion on a 3rd and 16 with less than 5:00 on the clock. Despite being interfered with on the play, McGee made the catch and kept UVa's hopes alive.
"That catch down the middle of the field? If he doesn't make that, the game's probably over," London recalled.
Eight plays later, Rocco found McGee again, this time for a 6-yard touchdown that put the Hoos up for good.
"I don't know what they were in," McGee said when asked how he got so open. "I got behind the backer, which I'm not supposed to do. But it worked out that he didn't see me and he didn't widen.
"I just sat in between the backer's zone and Mike put it on me," he added.
McGee finished with a team-high 99 yards receiving on four receptions.
So in a game where they had less first downs than their opponent (14 to 19), had less than 300 yards of total offense (295), had the fewest yards rushing in a victory since 2002, and turned the ball over four times without creating any turnovers themselves, the Cavaliers still found a way to win.
"Tremendous job by the defense," London said of his group, which gave up only 209 yards through the air. "I'm proud of the way our guys gave great effort to play and then win this game."