Cavaliers empathize with, yet are wary of, Penn St
By HANK KURZ Jr.
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (AP) Virginia's players profess great empathy for what their counterparts at Penn State have been through in recent months.
Not only did the Nittany Lions endure the scandal that erupted when retired defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky was arrested last November on child sex abuse charges, they saw the legendary coach with the once-pristine image, Joe Paterno, lose his job amid the turmoil.
Since then, the NCAA has levied landmark sanctions, including a four-year bowl ban and significant scholarship cuts, as well.
New coach Bill O'Brien, hired in January, has been a calming force in and out of the program ever since. He believes in a new era, and doing things differently as Penn State begins to pick up the pieces. But he also has respect, of course, for the football efforts of Paterno, who died in January.
Either way, O'Brien and the Nittany Lions have quite a challenge in front of them, long term. The program, in fact, lost several key players when the NCAA essentially made them free agents, able to go anywhere else and play right away, and then the Nittany Lions were stunned in their home opener by Ohio, 24-14. All told, Penn State is now 1-4 since Sandusky was arrested.
From afar, the Cavaliers (1-0) can only tip their helmets to the Nittany Lions.
"Everyone wants to go to a bowl game," Virginia junior defensive tackle Jake Snyder said. "I know they were some pretty harsh penalties, but more than anything, it's pretty honorable what they've done.
"The NCAA made it pretty obvious with those sanctions that they can get out and go to a different school and go play with no hesitation, no problem, and those guys stuck by the school and the program they love, and that's something that's pretty awesome."
All that said, Virginia still wants to keep Penn State's on-field misery going for another week.
"They're a great team, and just because they didn't get a win in their opening week doesn't mean anything negative about them," Snyder said. "And that's something the older guys definitely know."
He recalled last season when Virginia traveled to Indiana, another Big Ten team, the week after the Hoosiers lost to Ball State - like Ohio, a member of the second-tier Mid-American Conference Virginia won, 34-31, but needed a last second field goal to do it.
"We learned our lesson last year," Snyder said. "For sure."
The Nittany Lions, meanwhile, learned a few last week, too, especially in the second half when Ohio converted a remarkable 11 of 12 third-down plays to rally from a 14-3 halftime deficit.
At a school known for playing stout defense, one that is known as Linebacker U, it was a bitter pill.
"It's something I'm taking pretty personally," linebacker Mike Mauti said. "Really, all 11 guys, and that's something we're going to work on ... Whether it's a missed tackle or missed assignment, there are things that could have been done ... it just comes down to playing within the framework of the defense."
Getting out of State College, Pa., will be a plus, too.
"I know this week, one thing is we will have no distractions and we will have nothing distracting us from the job at hand," Mauti said, "and that's going to Virginia and winning a football game."
The Cavaliers expect their fans to be respectful, but they hope to be less so on the field.
"I expect a fired up team," tight end Paul Freedman said of the Nittany Lions. "I mean, this is their first away game. I expect them to be just as fired up as always, and be the traditional Penn State."
For the first time since the 2008 opener, when Southern Cal visited, Virginia is hoping for a sellout crowd for someone other than Virginia Tech. Penn State has practiced this week with music blaring in preparation for a loud atmosphere.
"Virginia is a very tough place to play from everything we've heard about it. It's a very hostile environment," quarterback Matt McGloin said. "The stadium will be packed, a lot of chants thrown at us."
In other words, much like a Big Ten road game.
"You name it, we've been through it all," McGloin said. "That's what we expect to hear again. It's a tough environment. Hopefully we can get a jump on them early and take the crowd out of it."
Freedman anticipates the opposite, and wants his team to be ready.
"You just have to love the spotlight. We talk about it all the time," he said. "You just have to love the pressure. All eyes are on you and it's a great opportunity to show what you have."
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Updated September 7, 2012