CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Penn State was always in his blood. Virginia quarterback Michael Rocco grew up adoring the Nittany Lions, spending many Saturdays at Beaver Stadium.
How could he have not supported the Nittany Lions during his childhood, with so many ties to the university? After all, his father and uncle played for the late Joe Paterno, and his grandfather coached in State College for 19 seasons.
On Saturday, Rocco faced the team he adored as a child and led the Cavaliers (2-0) over Penn State 17-16 after Sam Fickens 42-yard field goal missed wide as time expired.
The junior quarterback, who was benched in the third quarter before returning, completed 21 of 33 passes for 258 yards and two touchdowns, including the game-winning 6-yard scoring toss to tight end Jake McGee with 1:28 to go.
Its exciting to be 2-0, and having an exciting win like this today, said Rocco, who threw an interception and fumbled a snap. But weve got a lot of things to work on. We are going to celebrate this victory, but we know where we have to get better and what we have to do to get better. We have the guys to do it.
Rocco, who had an offer to play for Paterno, entered the contest with consecutive 300-yard games, first in last seasons Chick-fil-A Bowl loss to Auburn and then in last weeks win over Richmond. Expecting a similar performance against the depleted visitors, he was short of spectacular for the most part, and his coach took notice by benching him for two series.
No player likes to come out of the game, said Virginia coach Mike London. They want to play, particularly when you are competitive, and Michael is competitive. I just wanted him to get on the sideline and look at the game a little bit. (Backup) Phillip (Sims) had two series. He was okay. He did a nice job.
The Nittany Lion defense rarely gave Rocco time in the pocket to throw. In addition, the Virginia run game did next to nothing managing just 32 yards in 25 attempts.
Early in the second quarter, Rocco tried a screen pass to running back Kevin Parks, but Penn State defensive lineman Jordan HIll made a one-handed interception to bring a call from the fans for Sims.
Despite a below-average start to the game, the Lynchburg, Va. native opened the second half by leading his team on an 11-play, 77-yard drive, capping it off with a two-yard pass to tight end Jeremiah Mathis to give the Cavaliers a 10-7 lead.
But ensuing issues moving the ball resulted in Rocco being replaced late in the third quarter by Sims, an Alabama transfer who Rocco had beaten out before the start of the season.
We have another quarterback that is a good quarterback that you have to give opportunities to, said London, who saw Sims finish 2-of-3 for five yards, while losing a fumble. There was no, Your coming out because your bad.
(Rocco) came back in and did a nice job. Thats a credit to him.
Rocco didnt complain about the change. My job is to lead the team in whatever way possible, he said. When I was taken out, I just figured I was the leader from the sideline, stayed poised, stayed composed, just be a great teammate.
From teammate to hero, Roccos day turned as he engineered the 12-play, 86-yard drive to win it for the Cavaliers, who were aided by Fickens 1-for-5 day on field goals and a blocked extra point.
Its unfortunate, but the quarterback is the guy thats in there and gets the blame, London said. He also, hopefully, gets the credit.
Rocco got the accolades and appeared to secure the starting job permanently, too.