Virginia slips past Penn State, 17-16
Penn State running back Derek Day breaks a tackle by Virginia's Sammy MacFarlane in the first half Saturday in Charlottesville, Va.
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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- On just a slightly different day, the foremost memories might have been the postgame sight of the battered players: quarterback Matt McGloin with a pack of ice on his elbow and running back Derek Day with a sling on his shoulder.
It might have been the way linebacker Michael Mauti lifted his arm and pointed after yet another forced turnover. His team had four of them, and Virginia didn't have any. In the past five years, a Division I-A team with a turnover margin of plus-three or greater has won 93.6 percent of the time.
But games are not governed by probability. The indelible image was something else. It was kicker Sam Ficken. He slowly slid his helmet off in the rain, the clock showing zeroes, a blur of orange-clad Virginia players rushing onto the field and Penn State somehow on the wrong end of a 17-16 outcome to Virginia.
"We're all going through the same thing," cornerback Stephon Morris said. "Nobody said anything negative to him. It's not his fault. You can't blame one person."
Indeed, the offense received the ball inside the 30 after a forced turnover four times. It gained a net of negative-14 yards on those drives. It scored three points.
The defense, which forced all those turnovers, still could not consistently stop Virginia on third downs. The Cavaliers converted 9 of 15 attempts.
All of this was true when Ficken faced the uprights for one final time, from 42 yards. There was one second left in the heavy rain. The scoreboard had been flashing warnings for severe weather and lightning in the area.
Ficken had started poorly early in the game. He missed from 40 yards in the first, then from 38 in the second and from 20 in the third.
The crowd had noticed. When he attempted the extra point after an Allen Robinson diving touchdown reception early in the fourth quarter that gave Penn State the lead, they chanted, "nine-ty, sev-en," -- his number -- over and over. His attempt was blocked, and coach Bill O'Brien would say the kick was low.
He still trusted Ficken. His team up, 13-10, in the fourth, O'Brien had his offense on the field for a fourth-down attempt on the 14. After a timeout, he called for the kicking team, and Ficken made one from 32 yards.
The final attempt, which would have won the game, wasn't out of his range. Last season, he once converted from 43 yards. In practice, he routinely kicks from 60. For fun, in high school, he once he hit a field goal from 70 -- with the aid of a little wind.
This kick had the distance, but the ball sailed wide left. Offensive guard John Urschel went over to Ficken and told him it was OK. He told him the loss was on the entire team.
Outside the locker room, several players chimed in with what could have made the difference. Urschel talked about better protection for McGloin, who was hurried much more often than a week ago against Ohio. He left the game midway through the second quarter and returned for the first series of the third (freshman Steven Bench played in his absence), his elbow banged up but x-rays showing no damage.
The defense didn't try to hide any of its shortcomings, either. Ohio exposed the Nittany Lions on third down last week, converting 11 of 12 in the second half, and Virginia did again. Of its nine successful conversions, two came on the final scoring drive and were for 44 and 24 yards. The drive encompassed 86 yards and 12 plays and ended with 1:28 left.
"In football, bad plays happen," linebacker Glenn Carson said. "The offense can get you sometimes. That's kind of just what happened."
All week, though, the players had discussed the need to force turnovers. Defensive tackle Jordan Hill answered with an interception and linebacker Gerald Hodges, safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong and Mauti with fumble recoveries. The four turnovers only turned into one field goal.
"That was the difference in the ball game," O'Brien said.
He said he told his players that the sun would come up tomorrow. It was already shining shortly after the game ended. A few minutes later, the clouds rolled back in.
NOTE -- Paul Jones has started playing tight end in addition to quarterback, O'Brien said after the game. Jones, a sophomore from Sto-Rox High School, has never played in a game for Penn State. Wide receiver Alex Kenney said Jones started playing tight end early this week in practice.
First Published September 9, 2012 12:00 am