- Heather Dinich, ESPN Staff Writer
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The six degrees of Penn State branch out to Charlottesville, Va., where Virginia quarterback Michael Rocco was once offered a grey shirt and a chance to join Joe Paterno and the Nittany Lions. It was also a chance to continue the family legacy, as Rocco’s grandfather, Frank Rocco Sr., was an assistant coach under the late Paterno, and his father, Frank Rocco Jr., was a former quarterback for Penn State and member of the Nits’ 1982 national championship team.
Rocco, who lived in Pennsylvania until he was 9 years old, grew up going to Penn State games with his dad, and his grandparents still live in State College. Although Penn State was one of Rocco’s top choices during his recruiting process, he said he “became a Cavalier and haven’t looked back since then.”
“My family wanted me to pick the right school for me and if that was Penn State they’d be happy, but if it was anywhere else they’d be happy,” Rocco said. “At the end of the day, we chose Virginia and I haven’t looked back since.”
Until now, of course.
As Virginia prepares to host Penn State on Saturday in what will be the Nittany Lions’ first road game under coach Bill O’Brien, it’s been hard not to gawk at the ongoing storyline at Penn State in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky trial. The Nittany Lions will be trying to rebound from an emotional 24-14 loss to Ohio Saturday. Those within Virginia’s program, including Rocco, have done their best this week to stay focused on football and not let the Penn State news feed become a distraction.
“We understand things that happened, the news that was covered,” coach Mike London said. “We understand the tradition of Penn State. We understand the prestige of Penn State. In the end it's a football game we have to be concerned about. So our focus is on playing our second home game against an out-of-conference opponent, a team that played in a bowl game last year.”
A team that is a shell of the one that lost to Houston last year, 30-14, in the Ticketcity Bowl. At least nine players have decided to transfer since unprecedented NCAA sanctions were levied upon the program, including running back Silas Redd, receiver Justin Brown, punter/placekicker Anthony Fera and linebacker Khairi Fortt. Penn State’s identity continues to unfold along with the season, but London said there is still plenty of talent remaining on Penn State’s roster.
“No one wants to lose players like that,” London said. “But I think in college football, when one guy goes down, the next guy has to step up. I think Coach O'Brien and his staff have done a good job of putting the pieces together that are going to help them win.
“I see a very talented team out there, very skilled, particularly the corners and the receivers,” London said. “Their tight ends are big and athletic. Not saying [anything] about the players that they lost, but it appears the players they do have are players that are committed to playing and doing well.”
Having spent time as an assistant coach at Georgia Tech, Maryland and Duke, O’Brien is more than familiar enough with playing at Virginia. When asked this week about playing the first road game given all that’s happened to the program this offseason, O’Brien said he’s more concerned about the sheer volume of the crowd than anything UVa fans will actually be yelling at them.
“I'll tell you, though, I've coached in games in Met Life Stadium in New York, I've coached in games in the Oakland Raiders' stadium, so I've been in some hostile crowds,” he said. “I think at the end of the day we've got to be able to deal with the crowd noise, because having gone to Charlottesville many times at Georgia Tech and Maryland and Duke, it's a very loud home crowd, it's a great home advantage for Virginia, and 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.”
London and his players are far more concerned about the sendoff they’ll give the Nittany Lions than the reception they’ll get in Scott Stadium.
“Some of it you can control -- some of it you can't control,” London said. “The numbers, as far as crowd, 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. I know at Penn State there is a lot of prestige and a lot of tradition, but we're getting ready to play a football game and play a football team -- not the prestige and tradition.”