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College Football Analysis: Can Virginia Beat Penn State?

Alright, it's Wednesday on a football week, and that means is back with another Behind Enemy Lines segment. This week we spoke with Hamilton Riley over at our partner, Lambeth Field. Below we discussed offense, defense and (most importantly) the Charlottesville night scene. Enjoy!

Nittany Lions Den: I’ll admit, I don’t think too many Penn State fans are overly familiar with the 2012 Cavaliers football squad. However, a quick glance at some statistics shows that Virginia is returning their starting quarterback and running back from a good 2011 offense. Can you speak a little bit about these guys, and the other impact players on this offense? Who is it that Penn State fans are likely to notice on Saturday?

Lambeth Field: I’ll start with the easy question first. Virginia is returning their top 3 running backs from 2011. In order of appearance, the Hoos will use senior Perry Jones, sophomore Kevin Parks, and sophomore Clifton Richardson. Now Richardson was held out of the Richmond game, but sophomore Khalek Shepherd filled in for him nicely. While Jones will start, all 3/4 backs will be used in the game about the same. It might look like it is “running back by committee”, there is little drop off from 1 to 4 in terms of productivity (all 3 scored in Richmond game).  All are outside runners, with Parks and Richardson who can run inside a little, and all will be used in the passing game. More on that in a minute.

Now the slightly harder question. Michael Rocco is our starting quarterback for the Penn State game. He understands the system and is very efficient. He lives in the short to intermediate passing game and is more of a game manager anyways. Now some people, whether it be media or fans, want to see Phillip Sims under center. He is the transfer from Alabama, who was a 5* QB out of football factory Oscar Smith in Chesapeake, Va. He is a risk/reward for Virginia right now, a gun slinger that can hit the deep ball with accuracy. But as he has only been around since fall ball, his knowledge of Virginia’s system is not the same as Rocco’s, but Sims’ skill set is off the charts. As long as the Cavs are moving the ball, it is Rocco’s team, but Sims might get some series here and there.

NLD: Building on that, what type of offense do the Cavaliers run? What do most Virginia fans find to be its strengths and limitations? What traits must a defense have to be successful in stopping this offense?

LF: Virginia will run a true pro-set offense, featuring the running backs and the short-to-intermediate passing game. The new twist this year is the inclusion of the tight ends in the passing game (and we got 4 of them now). They have been able to move the ball the past year plus, the two knocks are (1) no explosive ability and (2) red zone scoring.  Stopping the running game and playing 7/8 in the box covering the crossing routes should be a focus. Make Rocco beat you with his arm downfield, rather than let him dump the ball off to a back or receiver and let them run wild.

NLD: From the outside, it seems like Mike London has done a terrific job at Virginia in a pretty short period of time. What has he brought that was missing in years past?

LF: Wow, how long is this article. The short, short version, is that he is a player’s coach that recruits can identify with. He is from Hampton, deep in the Hampton Roads “757” system that coached and played at Richmond, two huge recruiting beds in Virginia that was relatively untapped by UVa and mined by Virginia Tech. He is not a micro-manager like Groh was, and has a stable set of assistants that evaluate talent. Lastly, he has made the entire transformation transparent, opening the media to everything, whereas Groh would not let the kids or assistants field questions. It is a 180 from the last decade, and it is paying off in the talent now coming to Virginia.

NLD: Looking at Virginia’s defense, I’m not sure what to expect. What are some of the strengths to this defense, and who are some of the stand out players? What must the Nittany Lion offense do if they want to be in this game?

LF: While the front seven look fairly stout this year, the big question mark is in the secondary. It is populated with freshman and sophomores, and while they are talented, they are young. MLB Steve

Greer is the leader of the defense and seems to be in on every play, WLB LaRoy Reynolds is great in coverage (he was a converted safety), DT Will Hill anchors the line, and when we can get into the backfield, DE Jake Snyder should be one of the guys back there. Virginia is great at run defense, but shaky in pass coverage. CB Demetrious Nicholson is the big corner, but everyone else is fair game at this point in the season. If McGloin has time in the pocket, look downfield and there should be some opportunities.

NLD: Finally, what are some keys to the game for Virginia? Coming into the game as double-digit favorites, what must the Cavaliers do to assure the victory? And, if you were a betting man, would you bet that Virginia covers the 10-point spread? Why or why not?

LF: Keys for Virginia: run the ball, defend the pass, and don’t screw up on special teams. That should establish the tempo and time of possession, and then Virginia has a good shot at winning. But if they have issues with the middle of the offensive line allowing the Penn State DL in the backfield early, give up the 20+ yard pass plays, or muff punts (ugh) then they will have a difficult time all day. I am a betting man and I don’t bet on UVa, but I would not take the line after watching the Richmond game. I think the Hoos have a great shot of winning, but if they play the TOP game, it will make for a shorter game and less points, thus 10 points seems high.

NLD: *Bonus Question* There should be a few thousand Penn State students, fans and alumni making the trek to Charlottesville for the weekend. What are some of the best bars to visit on Friday/Saturday night? How about pre-game recommendations? Any other hot spots you would recommend to a first time visitor?

LF: You can’t go wrong before/after game and at night if you are on The Corner. Over a dozen local bars, each unique. If you don’t want to hang out with the kids, head over to the Downtown Mall where there are 30 or so choices all in walking distance. One thing C’Ville isn’t short on is watering holes. If you are looking for more of a Friday day or Sunday before heading back choice, there are 2 dozen wineries around Charlottesville and, of course, Monticello for the history buffs. If you are looking for something more specific, email us at and I can narrow it down a little.

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