Penn State braces for ruder-than-usual reception in game at Virginia

Posted: September 05, 2012

Penn State's players now realize that going into a hostile environment to compete in a football game is going to involve much more than simply hearing boos and some negative comments.

The Nittany Lions' trip to Virginia on Saturday will be their first venture on the road since a turbulent offseason that resulted in a report blasting Penn State officials, including the late Joe Paterno, for their handling of the Jerry Sandusky case, followed by NCAA sanctions - a bowl ban, scholarship reductions and other penalties.

The Lions could be in for some vile and cruel verbal treatment from some in the expected sellout crowd of 61,500 at Scott Stadium, things that will test their concentration and composure. Senior fullback Michael Zordich expects it.

"We've said since day one, since all of this stuff broke out, that road games are going to be pretty brutal for us," Zordich said Tuesday. "That's something you have to deal with. Typically, in another situation, road games are brutal. That's just how football is, the beautiful thing about home-field advantage.

"You can't really let the crowd play too much of a role. If anything, you use it to let it motivate you. I would say that it's almost fun to be not liked when you're playing because it's a good feeling to be at somebody else's stadium and be up and not hear anything from the entire crowd."

Penn State coach Bill O'Brien has been in Charlottesville before as an assistant coach at Georgia Tech, Maryland, and Duke. He said the biggest issue with being on the road is not what the Virginia fans are saying, but how loudly they're saying it.

"We've got to be able to deal with the crowd noise because, having gone to Charlottesville many times, it's a very, very loud crowd," he said. "It's a great home advantage for Virginia. We've got to do a great job this week of practicing with the crowd noise because that's the biggest thing - not what they're yelling but how loud they are."

Strong safety Malcolm Willis said that while he wasn't sure what the fan reaction would be toward Penn State, he was taking the game just like any other on the road.

"I'm just going to assume it's going to be like any other away game where there will be a hostile environment and we have to come out and perform and play our best," he said. "You're going to have fans everywhere that love you and hate you so you have to deal with it."

Penn State must overcome the unwelcome atmosphere to avoid an 0-2 start. After reviewing tape of the 24-14 loss to Ohio, O'Brien said neither the early-game emotions nor the steamy heat could be blamed for the Lions' second-half swoon. It all came down, he said, to making plays.

"We turned it over [three times], they didn't turn it over," he said during his weekly teleconference. "They converted on third down in the second half [11 of 12] on offense, we didn't convert on our offense on third down in the second half.

"We had chances to break passes up, make interceptions. We had chances to hit guys that were wide open or catch the ball being wide open. We didn't make those plays and Ohio did.

"So there's no excuses to be made there, but in many areas, we're a young football team. In other areas, we have a little bit more of a veteran team. So the veterans need to play better and the younger guys are going to get better. We've got a lot to build on, a lot of good stuff to build on."

A pair of starters, tailback Bill Belton and cornerback Stephon Morris, both left Saturday's game with ankle injuries. O'Brien said that they are "day to day" and that they would have to be back at practice Thursday to be available for Virginia.

O'Brien also conceded that he may have asked too much of linebacker Gerald Hodges when he put him in to return punts and kickoffs against Ohio, and that Hodges may be relieved of those duties this week. Hodges muffed a fair catch on a punt, causing a turnover that led to a field goal by the Bobcats.

"It's a lot on his plate and his main role obviously as our outside linebacker," he said. "I accept responsibility for that. But we'll move forward and we'll find some guys that can return some punts."


Inquirer Intern Wins National Award

Inquirer sports intern Emily Kaplan, a Penn State senior from Montclair, N.J., has been named the Judges Award winner of a national essay competition sponsored by the Jim Murray Memorial Foundation. Approximately 30 universities nominate one senior for the competition based upon academic performance and a commitment to journalism. The foundation is named after the late, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist from the Los Angeles Times. Kaplan's essay on Penn State football coach Bill O'Brien was judged best among the entries and can be read on Philly.com at philly.com/essay


Watch Bill O'Brien talk about dealing with crowd noise. www.philly.com/lioneyes


Contact Joe Juliano at 215-854-4494 or jjuliano@phillynews.com or follow him on Twitter @joejulesinq.

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