Virginia junior Michael Rocco notices a Penn State connection on every branch of his family tree.
His father, Frank Jr., played quarterback for the Nittany Lions. His grandfather, Frank Sr., worked on Joe Paterno’s staff. His uncle, Danny, started his college career at Penn State. His uncle, Dave, served as an undergraduate assistant under Paterno after suffering a back injury.
Michael is fine with leaving the nostalgia to everyone else when Virginia meets Penn State on Saturday.
His job as the Cavaliers’ starting quarterback forces him to treat every opponent the same, which is good because family reunions are becoming the norm. Virginia opened last week against Richmond.
The Spiders’ coach? Uncle Danny.
“When my family and I looked at the schedule whenever it first came out, we were shocked with how familiar the first couple of games would be,” he said. “It’s crazy how it has all worked out. My approach doesn’t change based on the opponent. I come into it like it’s every other game even though we have so many affiliations.”
The focus isn’t an act, according to those close to Michael. Today marks his 15th straight start. His steady play last season helped the Cavaliers finish 8-5 to earn their first bowl appearance since 2007. In a four-week stretch, he led Virginia to victories at Miami, Maryland and Florida State.
“He’s been poised and focused so many times,” Frank Sr. said. “He’s trying to win and play this game like it’s any other and then move along in the ACC.”
His grandparents are different. The opening two weeks of 2012 represent a draining stretch for Frank Sr. and his wife, Ann.
Michael had a big game last Saturday, completing 25 of 37 passes for a career-high 311 yards as Virginia outdistanced Richmond 43-19. The performance spoiled Danny’s debut as the Spiders’ head coach.
“It was an emotional day for me and my wife,” Frank Jr. said. “To have Danny on one sideline and Michael on the other sideline. ... It was very special.”
Another sharp performance by Michael might send Penn State to its first 0-2 start since 2001. The Nittany Lions opened the season with a 24-14 loss to Ohio University last Saturday.
After multiple high school and college stops throughout Pennsylvania, Frank Sr. settled at Penn State and worked with Paterno from 1982- 2000. Frank Sr. remained in State College after retiring from Penn State, which hasn’t played Virginia since 2002.
“My wife and I don’t know what colors to wear,” he said. “We will try to be as neutral as we can. But there’s blood there and we want Michael to do very, very well.”
The couple often visits Virginia, where their three sons work as head coaches. Frank Jr. and Dave are high school coaches. Michael, who was coached by his father at Liberty Christian High School, spent part of his childhood in Pittsburgh and frequently visited State College until football started dominating his summers.
“We were up there a lot more when I was younger visiting family and friends,” he said. “Now we hardly get up there because of busy schedules. My grandparents visit us a lot. They love going to sporting events and seeing their grandkids and their children. It’s a really cool relationship I have with my grandparents.”
Michael attended Penn State games as a child, but he hasn’t visited Beaver Stadium since his junior year of high school. His own career accelerated when multiple Division I schools started showing in the fall of 2009.
Penn State’s 2010 recruiting class received early commitments from quarterbacks Paul Jones and Rob Bolden. Paterno offered Michael an opportunity to grayshirt, which would have delayed his enrollment to January 2011.
Michael orally committed to Louisville before the 2010 season. But Louisville — and Virginia — changed coaches after disappointing years. Virginia plucked Mike London from Richmond to become head coach. London hired Bill Lazor as offensive coordinator. Michael clicked with both men and signed with the Cavaliers, who lost quarterback recruit Tyler Brosius to North Carolina State.
“Once I talked to Coach London and made my decision to come here, I was fully committed,” he said. “(Penn State) was one of the top five schools on my board, but I became a Cavalier and haven’t looked back yet.”
Penn State’s coaching staff experienced a massive upheaval beginning last November when the school fired Paterno. None of the coaches who recruited Michael remain on the staff.
When he received the grayshirt offer at a camp in 2009, Michael listened to Paterno tell stories about Frank Jr.’s playing career.
Some of those memories are creeping into Michael’s thoughts this week. But like any effective quarterback, he doesn’t let things linger.
“Watching Penn State and seeing the blue and white and the tradition, although they have the names on the back now, is a cool experience,” said Michael, who won a three-way quarterback derby to keep his starting job. “But being at the college level now and playing great opponents every week, I’m just treating it like any other game.”
Guy Cipriano can be reached at 231-4643. Follow him on Twitter @cdtguy