UCF vs. Penn State: 10 Things We Learned in Nittany Lions' Loss
The upset alert was flashing as Central Florida walked into Happy Valley, and the Knights came away victorious, edging out Penn State 34-31.
Blake Bortles threw for 288 yards and three touchdowns, while Storm Johnson trucked for 117 yards and a score. Each team only had to punt twice, although the Nittany Lions were turned away on fourth down in the first half.
Several big plays helped UCF jump out to a three-possession lead, and, despite a late surge from Penn State, was able to hold on after the Nittany Lions trusted their defense to get a stop rather than attempt an onside kick with under three minutes to play.
The defeat came at the expense of some great offensive performances from Penn State. A late fumble by tailback Zach Zwinak with the Nittany Lions driving wound up suffocating the comeback bid.
Following the upset, there are ten things we picked up on from tonight's showdown in State College.
UCF Was, in Fact, a Force to Be Reckoned with
It was hard to get a read on UCF after man-handling its first two opponents because of the teams the Knights faced. The Knights defeated Akron and FIU by a combined 69 points, although, as we saw against Michigan, the Zips might not be as bad as we all thought.
Well, no longer do we have to wonder if UCF is legit—it waltzed into Happy Valley and could have easily won by double-digits, but penalties and poor execution on special teams made things closer than they really were.
Now, the Knights have two weeks to prepare to host South Carolina. Even if UCF is unable to take down the Gamecocks, its non-conference schedule should adequately prepare the Knights for AAC play.
Allen Robinson Is the Big Ten's Top Receiver
Say what you will about Jared Abbrederis, Kenny Bell, Jeremy Gallon or Devin Smith—junior receiver Allen Robinson has just as much talent if not more, and he did all he could to keep his team in the game against UCF, catching nine passes for 143 yards and a touchdown.
As a sophomore, he led the Big Ten in receiving yards, and despite having a true freshman quarterback throwing him the football this season, he could take that crown once again in 2013. He has good size at 6'3" and you'd be hard-pressed to find a receiver in the B1G with a better set of hands than Robinson.
It was evident that Robinson can make Hackenberg look better than he really is and that he has already grown into his go-to receiver. The fact that Penn State has other weapons in the passing game should only help Robinson go on to have a bigger year than a season ago.
Hackenberg Can Thrive Under Pressure
When the Nittany Lions fell behind in the first half, Christian Hackenberg began missing some throws. It looked as though he was trying to do too much, and he was having his freshman moments, taking sacks rather than throwing the football away.
But Hackenberg has grown up fast. After leading Penn State back against Syracuse in Week 1, he nearly did it again against UCF. With the Nittany Lions down 18 points in the third quarter, Hackenberg led three touchdown drives to help bring them back to within three.
He began utilizing receivers other than Robinson, including Jesse James, Adam Breneman and Kyle Carter. While Hackenberg was aided by a strong running game, he still needed to make the throws when needed and for the most part came through—the true freshman completed 75 percent of his passes for 262 yards and a score without turning the ball over.
Third-Down Remains an Issue for Penn State
Entering the UCF game, Penn State was a remarkably poor 2-for-25 on third down, meaning it had only obtained two first downs when faced with a third down situation.
That's not good.
Those issues on third down were evident once again against the Knights, as Penn State only went 2-of-8 on third-down conversions. While the Nittany Lions were able to double their total on the season, they have actually converted more fourth downs (5-of-6) than third downs (4-of-33) in 2013.
The play calling has been too predictable, and the execution has been non-existent on third downs. It's an area Penn State needs to fix if it wants to put together another respectable run in the Big Ten.
Central Florida Could Challenge Louisville
In their first season as members of the newly formed American Athletic Conference, the Knights haven't been afraid to challenge themselves. With Penn State out of the way, UCF will host South Carolina, one of the best teams in the SEC, on Sept. 28 before kicking off conference play.
After playing Memphis, the Knights will graciously be given another two weeks to prepare for a Friday night showdown at Louisville and Heisman candidate Teddy Bridgewater. By far, it will be the biggest challenge the Knights face in AAC play.
Yes, the game takes place in Louisville, and yes, nobody will expect UCF to pull off the upset. But judging by how they responded in front of a hostile crowd of 92,000 at Penn State, the trek to Louisville won't faze this bunch—it could very well give the Cardinals more than they bargained for.
Penn State Had No Right Being in This Game
Chris Adamski, the Penn State football beat writer for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, couldn't believe Penn State had a chance to win this game, and rightfully so. UCF was gaining more yards, playing better defense and flat-out executing better on offense.
Through three quarters, the Knights had 441 yards of total offense. Only two teams—Indiana and Ohio—had more yardage against Penn State in an entire game last season, showing that Penn State's defense doesn't appear to be what it once was (via Adamski).
Maybe that has to do with the personnel Penn State lost on defense from last season. Maybe it has to do with the decline in scholarships. But either way, it never at any point felt like Penn State was the better team on Saturday night, and it was fortunate to only lose by three points.
The Defense Is Vulnerable to Big Plays
Going back to the last slide, the Penn State defense wound up allowing 507 yards to UCF, and for as much as the offense struggled to convert on third-down, the defense couldn't buy a stop in the same situation. The Knights converted 7-of-12 third downs.
There was also big play after big play for the Knights. Seven different players reeled off gains of greater than 20 yards, including four plays that went for more than 30 yards. Storm Johnson gained nearly half of his yards on a 58-yard scamper down the sideline, and Blake Bortles only completed 20 passes for 288 yards.
There's talent on Penn State's defense, including projected early-round draft pick and defensive tackle Da'Quan Jones. But that talent rarely showed itself against the Knights, a team that is by no means a college football powerhouse.
The Offense Isn't the Problem
Enough about the defense—there are many bright spots on the offensive side of the ball.
The offensive line, especially the right side, won the battle in the trenches. Meawhile, Hackenberg didn't turn the ball over for the first time in his collegiate career, completing 75 percent of his passes while throwing for 262 yards and a touchdown.
No running back averaged less than six yards per carry, while Zach Zwinak rushed 21 times for 128 yards and three touchdowns. And of course, there's Allen Robinson, who was marvelous and is beginning to cement himself as one of the top receivers in the country.
The late fumble by Zwinak in UCF territory was a back-breaker, but aside from that costly turnover and the third-down struggles, Penn State looked solid on offense. It's just too bad the defense wasn't up to the task.
Penn State Was out-Coached
Penn State head coach Bill O'Brien once coached under UCF head coach George O'Leary, and the two finally went head-to-head. Early on, it was evident who was winning the battle of wits, as the teacher got the best of the student on this occasion.
There were also obvious issues on defense, and some the blame has to fall on defensive coordinator John Butler. The defense was able to make a few adjustments at halftime, but it failed to come through at the end when it mattered most.
Which brings us back to O'Brien, who decided to kick it deep rather than attempt an onside kick with just under three minutes left in the fourth quarter and one timeout remaining. The risk in trusting his defense backfired, and based on how it was performing, that wasn't much of a surprise.
But hey—it happens. O'Brien did an excellent job under some messed up circumstances in his first season at Penn State, and he's only in his sophomore season as the head honcho.
More Pressure Is Needed Up Front
We talked about defensive tackle Da'Quan Jones earlier, and along with the rest of the defensive line, there simply needs to be more push up front and more pressure on the quarterback when he drops back to pass.
It wasn't until the fourth quarter when E.J. Dunston finally broke through for a sack, but that was the only sack, hurry or quarterback hit Penn State recorded all night. In all, the Nittany Lions had three tackles for a loss, which isn't bad, but they allowed Bortles to make camp in the pocket, allowing him to pick apart the Penn State secondary.
Some credit obviously has to go to UCF's offensive line, but Penn State is supposed to be a national power. Losing the battle in the trenches against a team of the Knights' caliber when on defense is unacceptable, but that's exactly what happened in Happy Valley on Saturday night.