UNIVERSITY PARK — After eight chaotic months on their own campus, Penn State players embark on their first road trip today.
Plenty of unknowns loom on the football-related journey, which climaxes with Saturday’s game against Virginia. Kickoff is at noon.
Nobody on the current roster has faced Virginia. Penn State also hasn’t played away from Beaver Stadium since the convinction of former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky on 45 charges of child sex abuse, the release of the Freeh report and the announcement of major NCAA sanctions against the school.
Absorbing whatever verbal jabs originate from the Virginia crowd will be one task for Penn State’s players, a resilient group that has spent nearly a year dealing with the aftermath of circumstances beyond their control.
“We have said since Day 1 when all this stuff broke out that road games are going to be brutal for us,” fullback Michael Zordich said.
Penn State visited Ohio State and Wisconsin, two of the Big Ten’s most hostile venues, after news of the charges involving Sandusky and university officials Tim Curley and Gary Schultz surfaced last November. The Nittany Lions are leaning on those experiences to help at Virginia, their only non-conference road game this season.
“We have played some very tough road games in the past,” senior quarterback Matt McGloin said. “We have played at Wisconsin, we have played at Ohio State. We have been through it all. We have heard some of the worst chants you can possibly hear.
“That’s what we expect Saturday. It’s part of college football. It’s part of the reason you play the game.”
Teammates are following McGloin’s lead, which means taunting might be parlayed into motivation. Zordich said “it’s always fun not being liked when you are playing.”
Safety Malcolm Willis said he’s assuming Saturday will resemble other away games.
“You will have fans everywhere that love you and hate you,” he said. “That’s what you have to deal with. You have to take them as they come.”
To prepare for the game, Penn State has amplified the music volume at practice. Six coaches — head coach Bill O’Brien, assistant head coach Stan Hixon, running backs coach Charles London, offensive line coach Mac McWhorter, defensive coordinator Ted Roof and linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden — have coached at Atlantic Coast Conference schools. O’Brien, a former assistant at Georgia Tech, Maryland and Duke, called Scott Stadium “a great home advantage for Virginia.”
“It’s a very, very difficult place to play,” he said.
Scott Stadium’s listed capacity is 61,500, but the school has squeezed more than 62,000 fans into the 71-year-old venue seven times because of a grassy area beyond the south end zone. The Cavaliers played Richmond before 50,081 fans last Saturday. A Virginia spokesman said Thursday that the school is expecting around 60,000 fans to attend Saturday’s game.
“I would hope that this game is close to being sold out because of the implications of us having a chance to be 2-0,” said Virginia coach Mike London, whose team thumped Richmond 43-19.
Penn State’s most recent trip to Charlottesville in 2001 yielded a 21-14 loss. The Nittany Lions won their only two other games at Scott Stadium. Penn State went 4-1 on the road last season, with the lone loss coming at Wisconsin.
Senior defensive tackle Jordan Hill said the Nittany Lions aren’t fretting over Saturday’s reception.
“I wouldn’t say that we are concerned about it,” he said. “I think we would be more excited. The more we are hated by a team, that makes us want to play the opponent more.”
Multiple first-teamers, including left tackle Donovan Smith, guard Miles Dieffenbach, tailback Bill Belton, tight end Kyle Carter, wide receiver Allen Robinson, defensive tackle DaQuan Jones and cornerback Adrian Amos, are bracing for their first road starts. But linebacker Michael Mauti doesn’t expect the crowd to affect the game.
“I don’t think guys are worried about Virginia’s crowd,” he said. “Noise is noise. We aren’t paying much attention to that.”
Day to start in PSU backfield
Penn State coach Bill O’Brien said on his weekly radio show Thursday that senior Derek Day will start at running back Saturday at Virginia.
Day, a former walk-on, rushed for 36 yards on eight carries last week against Ohio University. His workload increased after starter Bill Belton injured his left ankle in the third quarter.
O’Brien said Belton remains day to day. Belton, a sophomore, led the Nittany Lions with 53 yards on 13 carries last week.
“I’m not sure if Billy will be able to go Saturday,” O’Brien said.
O’Brien also said junior Curtis Dukes and sophomore Zach Zwinak will likely receive carries against Virginia. The 6- foot-1, 245-pound Dukes, who rushed for 237 yards on 41 carries last season, missed spring drills for academic reasons. Zwinak appeared in two games, gaining seven yards on three carries last season.
“Curtis Dukes and Zach Zwinak have had a really productive practice week, so they deserve to play,” O’Brien said. “Those are big kids that can run the football.”
Guy Cipriano can be reached at 231-4643. Follow him on Twitter @cdtguy