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Virginia hangs on for 17-16 win against Penn State behind resurgent Rocco

Virginia’s Jake McGee hauls in a catch against Penn State’s Malcom Willis (10) at Scott Stadium in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Saturday, September 8, 2012. Virginia held on for a 17-16 win.

By Norm Wood, Daily Press (Newport News, Va.) –

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Standing on the sideline early in the fourth quarter Saturday with his team trailing by a field goal and backup quarterback Phillip Sims in the game, Virginia quarterback Michael Rocco could’ve flipped his helmet under the bench and called it a day.

It turns out his afternoon was far from over. With a lot of assistance from Penn State’s hapless kicker, and a little boost from a backup tight end, Rocco ended up sparking U.Va.’s 17-16 win.

“My job is to lead the team in whatever way possible,” said Rocco, who completed 21 of 33 passes for 258 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. “When I was taken out, I figured I was a leader from the sideline and I had to stay poised and stay composed.”

He completed all six of his pass attempts for 97 yards and a 6-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jake McGee with 1:28 left on U.Va.’s final possession. As redeeming as Rocco’s re-entry to the game in the fourth quarter ended up being, there was no last-second reprieve for Penn State sophomore kicker Sam Ficken.

Ficken, who went 1 for 5 on field-goal attempts and who had a critical extra point blocked early in the fourth quarter, sent a 42-yard attempt with one second left wide left. His last miss came at the conclusion of a frantic 11-play drive by Penn State (0-2) that covered 48 yards in a minute and 27 seconds after U.Va.’s final touchdown-scoring possession.

“I don’t know if I watched it, to tell you the truth,” U.Va. coach Mike London said of the last field-goal attempt.

Ficken’s final failure preserved what was a decidedly imperfect victory for U.Va. (2-0). Penn State had 330 yards compared to 295 for U.Va., which posted just 32 rushing yards — its fewest in a win since 2002, when it had two rushing yards against Duke.

U.Va. had four turnovers, but Penn State was only able to score three points off the Cavaliers’ carelessness. Penn State also scored just 10 points on five trips inside U.Va.’s red zone. U.Va. committed 10 penalties for 70 yards lost, and surrendered three sacks.

Rocco’s premature departure came after one of U.Va.’s turnovers — a botched snap exchange with center Luke Bowanko that gave the ball to Penn State at U.Va.’s 29 with 2:28 left in the third quarter, when U.Va. was clinging to a 10-7 lead. Rocco was also intercepted by defensive tackle Jordan Hill on a second quarter screen pass at U.Va’s 28-yard line.

“I brought Michael out to look at what’s going on, to watch the game,” London said.

“There was no, ‘you’re coming out because you’re bad,’ or anything like that. It was another way to give a guy some reps and allow Mike to see what’s going on.”

Sims proceeded to complete 2 of 3 passes for five yards on two drives. Penn State took advantage of U.Va.’s inability to move the ball, capping a 45-yard drive with a 30-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Matt McGloin to diving wide receiver Allen Robinson that put the Nittany Lions up 13-10 with 13:10 left in the game. Ficken’s extra point was blocked by Henry Coley.

U.Va.’s second drive with Sims at quarterback ended with him fumbling the ball away at U.Va.’s 17 after being sacked by defensive end Deion Barnes. Penn State could only convert the turnover into a 32-yard field goal by Ficken with 10:55 left to go up 16-10.

Back in the game after Sims’ fumble, Rocco hooked up with McGee on a play that was instrumental in keeping U.Va.’s final touchdown-scoring drive alive.

McGee made a 44-yard catch between two Penn State defenders with just under five minutes left on a third-and-16 play that moved the Cavaliers from their own 22 to the Nittany Lions’ 34. London said the game probably would’ve been over if McGee didn’t make the catch.

“Rocco scrambled out of the pocket, he put it up, and I somehow came down with it,” said McGee, who had four catches for 99 yards. “I don’t know how I came down with it, but it stuck.”

It was one of three completions on third down by Rocco during the drive, including a 24-yard pass to Darius Jennings on a third-and-7 wide receiver screen that put U.Va. at Penn State’s 7. McGee made the game-winning touchdown catch three plays later.

“I guess for Michael if it was just smooth-sailing all the time, it wouldn’t be Virginia football,” offensive coordinator Bill Lazor said. “He’s never had it just smooth-sailing. … We’ve seen time and time again that he’ll take adversity — whether it’s from another team, from his teammates, from his coaches, from whatever situation — and he’ll fight through it.”

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