Cavaliers quarterback grew up rooting for Nittany Lions
Calls came from Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, State College, York, Reading, Wilkes-Barre and Harrisburg. In a teleconference Monday with Virginia quarterback Michael Rocco, whose team faces Penn State on Saturday, nearly every question was posed by reporters from Pennsylvania, an indication of how much the once-powerful program still means in all corners of the state.
The Nittany Lions have been through the Jerry Sandusky sexual abuse scandal and the firing and death of fallen legendary coach Joe Paterno. Plus, they have been slammed with NCAA sanctions and player defections. Before 97,186 in Happy Valley on Saturday, the Penn State faithful realized how difficult post-scandal life will be in a 24-14 loss to Ohio. In the final minutes, with the loss assured, fans still roared repeatedly, "We are ... Penn State."
No one knows that passion more than Rocco. His grandfather coached there. His father and two uncles played there. Until age 9, he grew up in Pittsburgh as an ardent fan of the Nittany Lions as well as the Steelers, Pirates and Penguins. Even after moving to Virginia, he continued to go to Penn State games on weekend visits to see his grandparents.
|Penn State at Virginia|
|When » Saturday, noon|
|Where » Scott Stadium,|
|TV » ABC|
"I was the biggest Penn State fan there was," Rocco said.
But that changed when Rocco committed to Virginia out of Liberty Christian Academy in Lynchburg, where he played for his father.
"I bleed orange and blue now," said Rocco, a junior. "[Penn State's] really just another game on the schedule."
Throughout high school, Rocco attended football camps at Penn State but only received an offer to grayshirt (delayed enrollment) as Paterno preferred fellow campers and four-star prospects Paul Jones, now the backup to Matt McGloin, and Rob Bolden, who has transferred to LSU, where he is third on the depth chart.
"The coaching staffs have changed a lot, and I really have no hard feelings toward Penn State at all," Rocco said. "I'm happy where I am right now."
In Virginia's opening-game win over Richmond, Rocco completed 25 of 37 passes for 311 yards. He will have a big opportunity against a Penn State secondary that withered Saturday as Ohio quarterback Tyler Tettleton completed 31 of 41 yards for 324 yards, guiding three touchdown drives in the second half.
"We had chances to break passes up, make interceptions. We had chances to hit guys that were wide open or catch the ball being wide open, and we did not make those plays," Penn State coach Bill O'Brien told reporters Tuesday. "There's no excuses to be made there, but we have in many areas of our football team a young football team."
None of the four players who finished last year as a starter in the secondary is back. The unit serves as a microcosm of the tough transition from what Penn State used to be and a reminder that things likely will get worse as players will have the option of leaving after this season.
"I couldn't imagine having to deal with that," said Virginia coach Mike London, who reportedly was wooed by Penn State last fall. "Keeping the guys loyal, keeping the guys wanting to come to the school, keeping the guys -- particularly the sophomores, freshmen -- who are already on the team that will be highly impacted by this."