CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Virginia quarterback Michael Rocco grew up a huge Penn State fan, and with good reason.
His father and uncle played for the late Joe Paterno, and his grandfather coached with Paterno for 19 seasons. Michael Rocco even had an offer to add to the family ties and attend Penn State, but says once he donned Cavaliers' orange and blue, any allegiance to the Nittany Lions disappeared.
Rocco will lead the Cavaliers (1-0) against visiting Penn State (0-1) on Saturday.
It's the second straight weekend Rocco has had to prepare for an opponent with family ties. Last week, he threw for 311 yards in just three quarters in leading the Cavaliers past a Richmond team coached by his uncle, Danny Rocco — who played for Penn State from 1979-80. This week, he is getting ready for the team that his dad, Frank, won a national championship with in 1982.
"When my family and I looked at the schedule, whenever it first came out, we were just kind of shocked at how familiar the first couple of games would be," Michael Rocco said. "I've had so many affiliations with Penn State, it's crazy how it's worked out, but my approach doesn't change based on the opponent."
Still a staunch fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Pirates and Penguins, Rocco said he was "the biggest Penn State fan there was" growing up, often attending games on trips to State College, Pa., to see his grandfather, Frank Rocco Sr., and his grandmother. But he said he hasn't been to Beaver Stadium since about 2008.
A devout Christian, Rocco said he paid some attention to the sex abuse scandal at Penn State that eventually led to the ouster last winter of Paterno and three high level administrators. But having grown apart from the program and then seeing the changes to the coaching staff, made it less painful to watch.
"It hasn't been as devastating as it would have been if I was still that young boy that idolized Penn State football," he said, "and it's just because I've kind of grown apart from them."
The opportunity to arrive at Penn State as a "grayshirt," which would have meant skipping fall semester and enrolling after the season, came from Paterno himself after Rocco performed well during a football camp.
It was a "cool experience," Rocco said of the meeting with Paterno, but not one he seriously considered. He initially signed with Louisville, but when Louisville and Virginia changed their coaching staffs, he talked to new Virginia coach Mike London, heard the Cavaliers were going to run a pro-style offense and came to Charlottesville.
He's making it look like the right move.
Rocco won a preseason battle for the starting job against sophomore David Watford and highly touted Alabama transfer Phillip Sims, and picked up where he left off last season against the Spiders.
His 311 yards passing was one shy of his career high, set last January in a Chick-fil-A Bowl loss to Auburn. The victory improved the Cavaliers' record to 9-5 in games started by the junior.
Penn State linebacker Mike Mauti has been impressed by what he's seen.
"He's a good decision-maker, a guy that's not going to make bad decisions in the game," Mauti said. "We need to contain him and do our best to put pressure on him."
Rocco has been more inclined to make short- or medium-range throws so far in his career, and while London knows fans are excited about the presence of Sims, one of the highest rated quarterbacks when he left high school three years ago, the coach also appreciates how Rocco goes about his business.
"Every player has their own style and a way they play the game, and that's what Michael does — he manages the game and makes the throws and the checks and he calls plays at the line of scrimmage," London said. "He directs the pass protection. So it's easy to see a player that can scramble and run and looks 'oh, wow,' and all that.
"But you want to know, can he run? Can he control the offense? Can he make the throws and make the decisions? That type of player is the type of player Michael is."
And one who harbors no ill will against the team he grew up following.
"It's really," Rocco said, "just another game on the schedule that we've got to prepare for."