Cavaliers quarterback Michael Rocco hit Jake McGee on a 6-yard touchdown pass with 1:28 to play Saturday, and Penn State kicker Sam Ficken then missed his fourth field goal of the game -- from 42 yards -- to preserve Virginia's 17-16 victory.
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"We just needed to make a play," senior quarterback Matt McGloin said of the final drive, which got Penn State to the Virginia 22. "That's something we practice every day. We got it down the field. Unfortunately, we just couldn't finish."
The loss in O'Brien's first road game had to hurt the Nittany Lions as much as their defeat last weekend at home against Ohio. Penn State (0-2) largely stymied Virginia's offense and forced four turnovers in Virginia territory, continually giving its offense opportunities, but McGloin and Co. converted those chances into just three points.
And even the Nittany Lions' defense came up short when it mattered most.
Virginia's winning drive took 6:36 and covered 86 yards in 12 plays, the biggest blow a 44-yard pass from Rocco to McGee on third-and-16 from the Cavaliers' 22-yard line. Seven plays later, on third-and-goal from the 6, Rocco found McGee open again just inside the end zone, and Drew Jarrett's extra point was the difference.
"I was fired up and trying to get some more points on the board," McGee said of the third-down catch. "Rocco scrambled out of the pocket, he put it up, and I somehow came down with it. I don't know how I came down with it, but it stuck."
If not for the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal that led the NCAA to hit Penn State hard with sanctions, including a four-year bowl ban and the chance for its players to transfer without penalty, the Nittany Lions might have won easily. Among the departures: placekicker Anthony Fera, who made 14 of 17 field goals last season. He went to Texas.
But the Nittany Lions still almost overcame the miscues, turning to their old standby of punishing defense -- at least until the final drive. Virginia finished with just 32 yards on 25 carries and 295 yards in all, but converted 9 of 15 third down tries.
"I think there are some things to build on," said O'Brien, who was hired as Joe Paterno's permanent replacement after the revered coach was fired last November. "I think there are a lot of positives. I think these kids play extremely hard and I'm very proud to be associated with them and I really appreciate their effort. They really emptied the tank today."
The Nittany Lions couldn't stop Ohio in the second half last weekend, but on Saturday they forced three fumbles and an interception, giving them possessions that started at Virginia's 17 twice, its 19 and its 29. Only a fumble by Virginia backup quarterback Phiilip Sims at his 17 turned into points -- a 32-yard field goal by Ficken.
When that kick sailed through and the officials signaled it was good, even empathetic Virginia fans gave a cheer.
It also gave the Nittany Lions a 16-10 lead -- Ficken also had an extra point try blocked -- and then Rocco went to work.
After Virginia scored, Matt McGloin drove Penn State from its 27 to the Cavaliers 22, and took a knee to center the ball with one second left, but with rain falling, Ficken's kick sailed wide left and the crowd erupted in stunned glee.
"Percentages say you have a better chance making a kick from the middle of the field than you do from the hash," O'Brien said. "Just center the ball. ... We did a really good job on that drive, so we just need to finish that drive."
Virginia center Luke Bowanko found it hard to watch Ficken's last attempt.
"Whoever turned the rain machine on, thanks," he said. "It's almost at that point you did all you can do."
Afterward, several Nittany Lions sought out Ficken to tell him that the team, not him, shared the blame.
"We just told him to keep his head up. We're all going through the same thing," senior cornerback Stephon Morris said. "Nobody said anything negative to him. It's not his fault. You can't blame one person."
Wide receiver Alex Kenney said it will take more than a loss to shake the team's resolve.
"One thing you're going to figure out about this team is we're never going to give up," Kenney said.
McGloin, who finished 19 for 35 for 197 yards, left late in the first half and went to the locker room to have an injured elbow attended to, and returned a few plays into the third quarter with Virginia ahead 10-7. His first pass was a 23-yard completion to Alex Kenney on third-and-10 from the Nittany Lions' 25, keeping alive a drive that reached the Virginia 3 before O'Brien sent Ficken out to try from 20 yards. He'd already missed from 40 and 38, and this time, he missed again.
Early in the fourth quarter, McGloin gave Penn State a 13-10 lead, hitting a diving Allen Robinson for a 30-yard touchdown, again on a third-and-7 play. When Ficken tried the extra point, Virginia linebacker Henry Coley slapped it away.
McGloin also threw a touchdown pass on the Lions' opening drive to Kyle Carter, capping a 17-play, 75-yard drive that signaled that this wasn't just another game for the beleaguered Nittany Lions.
After converting a long third down and then nearly another, O'Brien elected to take a chance on fourth-and-1 from his own 45 yard-line. McGloin got the necessary yard on a quarterback sneak, and four plays later, fullback Michael Zordich ran for three yards on fourth-and-1 from the Virginia 45.
A personal foul penalty against Virginia defensive tackle Jake Snyder for continuing to play after his helmet popped off eventually moved the ball from the 20 to the 10, and on third-and-8, McGloin found Carter wide open.
Virginia started the second half the way Penn State started the game, driving for a touchdown.
Rocco had completions of 26 yards to McGee and 20 yards to Dominique Terrell on the 11-play, 77-yard march, and used a nifty play fake to free Jeremiah Mathis for a 1-yard touchdown reception.
That made it 10-7, and it stayed that way until McGloin's scoring pass to Robinson.