It never had a chance.
Sam Ficken’s fourth missed field goal sailed wide left and gave Virginia an improbable 17-16 win over Penn State on Saturday at Scott Stadium.
“I understand there’s a lot of pressure on kickers,” UVA coach Mike London said. “But I also understand the pressure that can be applied on the other side when you can push on the guards and get your hands up like the one we blocked. When you start doing that, you kind of create that thing where the kicker knows you’re back there – you’re close. Maybe we got in his head. Maybe he just missed them.”
Quarterback Michael Rocco found Jake McGee for a 6-yard touchdown that gave Virginia its one-point lead with 1:28 remaining. Rocco was 4-4 on third downs on the 12-play, 86-yard drive, including a 44-yard prayer to McGee on 3rd-and-16 from Virginia’s 22-yard line. The sophomore tight end split two Penn State defenders to make the catch, one of whom was called for pass interference.
“I was fired up and trying to get some more points on the board,” said McGee, who finished with a career-high 99 yards receiving. “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.”
Penn State turned four UVA turnovers into just three points – Ficken’s lone make of the day, a 32-yarder that gave PSU a 16-10 lead with 11 minutes to go in the fourth quarter. Virginia’s miscues –three fumbles and an interception – all took place inside its own 30-yard line. On the four ensuing possessions, however, UVA’s defense held Penn State to minus-14 yards.
Said linebacker Steve Greer, who finished with a career-high 15 tackles: “That’s what Coach Reid emphasizes every day, that when you are put in a tough spot, that’s where defenses show up. We really wanted to execute and create an identity for ourselves.” The last time UVA won after being minus-four in turnover margin was a 9-6 win over Clemson in 1994.
NCAA sanctions in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal allowed Penn State players to transfer without restriction. All-Big Ten kicker Anthony Fera left Happy Valley for the University of Texas, which gave Ficken the starting job. The sophomore missed from 40, 32, 20, and 42 yards Saturday, and had one of his two extra points blocked by UVA linebacker Henry Coley.
“It’s never always about the kicker,” Penn State coach Bill O’Brien said. “The kicker is always the one to get blamed, but it’s the whole operation: the snap, the hold, the kick. We have to take a look at that. There is no substitute for hard work. We’ll have to go back as a staff and talk about it, but Sam is our kicker. We need to see what things we can do to help Sam get better.” Virginia kicker Drew Jarrett converted his only field goal attempt of the day, a career-long 46-yarder in the second quarter.
Now 2-0 for the second consecutive year, UVA will open conference play Saturday at Georgia Tech. Mike London’s team topped the then-no. 12 Yellow Jackets last season, 24-21, in Charlottesville.
A UVA fan captures the winning touchdown below…