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Penn State drops heartbreaker at Virginia

| Saturday, Sept. 8, 2012, 4:00 p.m.
Penn State linebacker Glenn Carson (40) is pushed out of bounds by Virginia wide receiver Canaan Severin (84) after making an interception during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday Sept. 8, 2012, in Charlottesville, Va. (AP)
Penn State coach Bill O'Brien and Virginia coach Mike London shake hands before a game Saturday Sept. 8, 2012 in Charlottesville, Va. (AP)
Penn State running back Derek Day (24) breaks a tackle by Virginia's Sammy MacFarlane (44) during the first half of a game, Saturday Sept. 8, 2012, in Charlottesville, Va. (AP)
Penn State linebacker Michael Mauti (42) causes Virginia tight end Paul Freedman (88) to fumble the ball during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday Sept. 8, 2012, in Charlottesville, Va. (AP)
Penn State quarterback Steven Bench (12) is tackled by Virginia linebacker LaRoy Reynolds (9) during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday Sept. 8, 2012, in Charlottesville, Va. (AP)
Penn State head coach Bill O'Brien reacts to a call made by the referees during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Virginia, Saturday Sept. 8, 2012, in Charlottesville, Va. (AP)
Penn State kicker Sam Ficken walks off the field after missing a field goal in the final seconds of the team's 17-16 loss to Virginia on Saturday, Sept. 8, 2012, in Charlottesville, Va. (AP)

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — It seemed as much a vexing riddle as it did an agonizing question after the Penn State football team dropped to 0-2 in heartbreaking and mind-boggling fashion at Virginia.

How did the Nittany Lions force four turnovers, three of which set up the offense inside Virginia's 20-yard line, outgain the Cavaliers and still lose?

Answer: The offense went backward by a collective 14 yards in possessions following Virginia turnovers.

Missed opportunities, the scattershot right leg of a tormented kicker and one of the few big plays yielded by a dominating defense were too much for Penn State to overcome Saturday in a 17-16 loss at Scott Stadium.

The game ended, fittingly, on a missed field goal as rain pelted the field and the announced crowd of 56,087.

Sam Ficken's 42-yard attempt sailed left of the goalposts, allowing the victorious Cavaliers to run onto the field to celebrate an unlikely win.

Nobody had a rougher game — or longer plane ride home — than Ficken, who missed four field goals, including a 20-yarder, and had an extra point blocked. The sophomore became the Nittany Lions' kicker when Anthony Fera, who made 14 of 17 field-goal attempts last year, transferred to Texas.

Penn State's sports information department didn't make Ficken available to the media.

Despite his struggles, Ficken earned a vote of confidence from Bill O'Brien, who will try to notch his first win next Saturday against visiting Navy.

“Sam's our kicker, and we'll see the things we can do to help Sam get better,” O'Brien said after Penn State dropped to 0-2 for the first time since 2001.

“It's never always about the kicker. I could have called better plays. We could have executed better. I think there's a lot of positives. I think these kids play very, very hard. I'm proud to be associated with them. I think they emptied the tank, and I really appreciate it.”

They were left with mostly an empty feeling because of a quarterback with Penn State ties who was flawless when the Nittany Lions needed one final stop.

Benched earlier in the second half after losing a fumble, Michael Rocco completed 6 of 6 passes for 97 yards in leading the touchdown drive that gave Virginia the lead with 1 minute, 28 seconds remaining.

The dagger came on third-and-16 from Virginia's 22.

Rocco, whose father played quarterback on Penn State's 1982 national championship team, escaped pressure and heaved a pass that tight end Jake McGee caught between two defenders for a 44-yard gain.

Rocco capped the 12-play, 86-yard drive with a 6-yard touchdown pass to McGee. Penn State quarterback Matt McGloin couldn't quite match those heroics, though the senior did give his team a chance to win at the end.

McGloin, who gutted through an elbow injury that briefly knocked him out of the game, said the loss stung even more because of how much the players want to get O'Brien his first victory.

“It kills you inside,” McGloin said after throwing for 197 yards and two touchdowns. “The guy's doing everything he can for us. We're playing as hard as we can on the field and it just kind of feels like something's stopping us. With this team we have and staff we have and support we have, we'll find a way to get it done, I promise you that.”

The Nittany Lions have mostly stopped themselves in the first two games, and they are arguably four plays, if not fewer, removed from a 2-0 record.

Not that any of that mattered to outside linebacker Michael Mauti as he sat in a makeshift media room in Scott Stadium while waiting for McGloin to finish his interview.

Mauti had been all over the field, recording a team-high nine tackles while causing and recovering a fumble, but it was not enough.

The four turnovers weren't enough, either.

“All we can do is our job, and everybody's responsible for their job,” Mauti said of the defense, “and that's all I've got to say about that.”

Scott Brown is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at sbrown@tribweb.com.

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