CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Four missed field goals, including one on the last play that would have won the game. A solid defensive effort — until it needed it most. Another tough-to-take loss for resilient Penn State.
The Nittany Lions (0-2) probably don't need any more rallying points, but got another one on Saturday in sophomore placekicker Sam Ficken, whose day could hardly have gone more poorly.
Ficken made only one of five field goal attempts, including one miss from 20 yards and another from 42 on the final play of the game, depriving the Nittany Lions of a stirring victory at Virginia.
He also had one of two extra-point kicks blocked, the difference in their 17-16 loss.
When it was over, the school declined to make Ficken available, and teammates refused to let him take the blame.
"This certainly isn't on him. It's on all of us as a team," junior guard John Urschel said he told Ficken. "He was obviously down on himself. He's a good football player. He's a team player. He's a great team guy, so he's obviously going to feel bad and try to take responsibility, but it's not on him at all.
"We lost this as a team today."
Indeed. One week after its defense was maligned for allowing Ohio to convert 11 of 12 third downs in its 24-14 comeback victory, Penn State stymied Virginia until the Cavaliers' winning drive. Quarterback Michael Rocco was 6 for 6 for 97 yards on the 86-yard march, overcoming his own team's mistakes.
Virginia finished with 295 yards, including just 32 rushing on 25 carries.
"I thought they played their tails off and they did a lot of things really well," new coach Bill O'Brien said of his defense, which also forced four turnovers, all in Virginia territory. The offense, though, turned them into three points, largely because Ficken also missed kicks from 40 and 38 yards.
In a season unlike any other because of a sex abuse scandal that prompted the NCAA to levy steep sanctions against the Nittany Lions, including allowing players to leave the program and go elsewhere, those that remain seem determined to band together and not let outside noises infect their inner circle.
To that end, O'Brien said, their first road trip had its good moments.
"I thought there were some things we did better," said O'Brien, hired in January after Joe Paterno was fired late last season as the program's once-pristine image was shattered. "Again, I'd have to look at the tape to really answer that, but I thought we fought very, very hard in the game. It is a tough environment here in Virginia, but it is definitely nice to be on the road and have your 70 guys and your coaching staff and your trainers and your doctors and your support staff and just have that inner circle working."
It seemed to pay big dividends after Ficken's last kicked sailed wide left. It might even help that the kicker essentially got the job by default when last year's kicker, Anthony Fera, who missed only three times in 17 field goal tries in 2011, saw a four-year bowl ban and opted to transfer to Texas.
"There's an inkling of a thought like, 'Hey, could we catch a break?'" said tailback Derek Day, who got the start because Bill Belton missed the game with an injury. But, he added: "That's not the mentality that our team has. I think that's not the personality or the character that our team has."
Instead, there is resolve to keep fighting.
"We're not going to accept this loss," senior tackle Mike Farrell said. "We're not going to accept losing. The attitude we come in with this Monday is going to echo what it's been all along, through ups and downs, bad breaks, tough breaks, not-fair breaks. We will definitely move forward with that in mind."
It's the kind of resolve the Nittany Lions will have to sustain.
"These kids left it all out there today, there's no question about that, and I really appreciate their effort," O'Brien said. "We'll break through. We just have to do a better job in the red area offensively and stop people on third and long, and we have to keep fighting. The sun will come up tomorrow."