Sunday, April 20, 2014
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Penn State vs Virginia: Five storylines to follow

The Nittany Lions travel to Virginia this weekend to face the Caveliers, and all eyes will be on how Penn State preforms on -- and, at times, off -- the field. Here are five storylines to follow.

Penn State vs Virginia: Five storylines to follow

Penn State threw on nearly 70 percent of its offensive plays against Ohio. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)
Penn State threw on nearly 70 percent of its offensive plays against Ohio. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)

A 24-14 loss to Ohio is not the way Penn State wanted to begin the Bill O'Brien era. An 0-2 start would make things even worse. 

The Nittany Lions travel to Virginia this weekend to face the Caveliers, and all eyes will be on how Penn State preforms on -- and, at times, off -- the field. Here are five storylines to follow:

Just run it: What type of offense did O'Brien display against Ohio? Calling it pass-heavy is probably safe. The Nittany Lions threw on nearly 70 percent of their offensive plays. Look for that number to go down against Virginia as O'Brien looks for more balance. "I think I've got to do a better job there," O'Brien said on Tuesday. "We can run the football." 

In or out? Speaking of running the foootball.. A big factor in how Penn State's run game will shape out depends on if sophomore Bill Belton can play. Belton, who shined at training camp to assume the No. 1 role after Silas Redd departed, was steady on Saturday. He tallied 53 yards on 13 carries, until he left the game with an ankle injury. On Tuesday, O'Brien classified the injury as minor and said Belton was day-to-day. His status would depend on how he practiced, and on Wednesday, as media members were allowed to watch 15 minutes, Belton was not on the field. Corner Stephon Morris, who also sustained a minor ankle injury, was also a question mark heading into Virginia. However the senior did practice on Wednesday and it would be a safe bet to say he'll be on the field.

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Hit the road: It's the first time O'Brien will take his team to a visiting stadium. That's daunting enough for the first-time head coach, but it's also the first time the Nittany Lions are playing away from Happy Valley since the Freeh Report and ensuing NCAA sanctions. Will Virginia fans be hostile? Maybe. Will it affect how the team performs? We'll have to wait and see. Senior Mike Zordich said that since everything went down, the team knew it would be underdogs all season long. Penn State opened up as 10-point underdogs to Virginia. They'll likely have a target on their backs, as well. It's no Duke-UNC basketball game, but this is ACC country -- something O'Brien, a former ACC assistant is familiar with -- and things might get rowdy.

Stop Rocc-o: Virginia quarterback Michael Rocco almost went to Penn State -- Joe Paterno offered the Virginia native a grayshirt scholarship -- but he chose Mike London and the Cavaliers instead. Virginia fans are certainly happy about that. Last week, Rocco completed 25 of 37 passes for 311 yards and a touchdown. Virginia totaled 545 yards of total offense. He did not record an interception and he was not sacked. The Nittany Lions struggled to contain Ohio quarterback Tyler Tettleton last week -- he totaled 371 yards of total offense, good for sixth in the nation. Will Penn State's defense allow a repeat performance?

Second half slumber: All seemed to be going into the Nittany Lions favor when they entered halftime of the Ohio game with a 14-3 halftime lead. That's when things went sour. Penn State was outscored 21-0 in the second half, allowing 11 of 12 third down conversions. Was fatigue a factor? O'Brien seemed to quash that idea. Was it an emotional letdown after all the hype surrounding the beginning of the game? O'Brien didnt seem to receptive to that theory, either. Whatever it was, Penn State simply must put out a complete effort for all four quarters. That all begins with pressuring Rocco to force fumbles or interceptions. It also means limiting mental mistakes. Penn State fumbled twice at Beaver Stadium and allowed Ohio to convert 62 percent of its third downs. They are underdogs, afterall, and it's going to take a pretty strong performance to knock down the home team.

-Emily Kaplan

About this blog
Joe Juliano has been a staff writer for The Inquirer for 20 years, covering college sports, golf and the Penn Relays.

This season is Joe's fourth season on the paper's Penn State beat. He previously covered the Nittany Lions for United Press International from 1976 to 1984.

Joe Juliano
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