UNIVERSITY PARK — Bill O’Brien coached on George O’Leary’s staff for seven seasons and took a few things away from the UCF coach.
A few of the traits O’Brien picked up from his former mentor — and has worked to instill in his football teams since the two coached at Georgia Tech together in the 90’s — will undoubtedly be on display when O’Leary’s UCF Knights (2-0), now playing in the American Athletics Conference, meet O’Brien’s Nittany Lions (2-0) at Beaver Stadium at 6 p.m.
“They’re sound and they’re physical at all positions,” O’Brien said of the Knights. “It’s not like they’re just physical on the offensive and defensive line. To me, they’re a physical team at every position. Our players have to be ready for a physical football game because this won’t be a game for the faint of heart, and that’s a coach O’Leary trademark.”
Led by a creative quarterback and buoyed by a powerful tailback, who are candidates for multiple awards given to the top players at their positions, the Knights have outscored their two opponents 76-7 so far.
But Penn State figures to be a much stiffer test for the Knights, who have ransacked Akron and Florida International in the first two weeks. And although Penn State started slow in its first two wins against Syracuse and Eastern Michigan, respectively, the Nittany Lions recovered to close those games out.
The play of true freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg has had a lot to do with that.
Hackenberg is 45-for-64 with 589 yards and has thrown three touchdowns and three interceptions so far. His play warranted praise from O’Leary, who began to look at Penn State on film earlier this week.
“He’s not playing like a true freshman,” O’Leary said. “He doesn’t make a lot of mistakes. He knows where to deliver the ball and I think all the fundamentals that you look for in a quarterback, he’s been well-schooled as far as the faking part of the run game and all these different things. I think they’ve done a great job with him.”
Like Hackenberg, junior Blake Bortles is the present and future of the quarterback position for UCF.
Now in his second year as starter, Bortles is a big body at 6-foot-4, 230 pounds, who can beat teams with his arm and legs. His creativity and ability to extend plays have resulted in scorched defenses over the last 16 games in which UCF is 12-4 with Bortles as a starter.
He’s able to avoid pressure with ease and is dangerous when he gets outside of the pocket. Bortles has thrown for 3,587 yards and 29 touchdowns and run for another 309 and nine scores since he was named the starter before last season. He hasn’t thrown an interception in 217 attempts and has already turned two fumbled snaps into touchdown passes this season.
“We’ve got to make sure we contain the quarterback,” Penn State senior defensive tackle DaQuan Jones said. “He does a great job of making big plays and scrambling, so I think our jobs this week will be to contain him in the pocket and not let him get out.”
Penn State also has to keep running back Storm Johnson bottled up. Johnson, who transferred from Miami (Fla.) following the 2010 season, is nearly “impossible to tackle” one-on-one in the open field, his teammate J.J. Worton told the Centre Daily Times.
A dangerous, low-to-the-ground runner, Johnson has a reputation of being the strongest player pound-for-pound on the UCF squad. At 6-feet tall and 215 pounds, Johnson squats 630 pounds, Worton said.
“He’s got the drive of a champion and that’s what we need in the weight room,” Worton said. “He’s really stepping up to be a great offensive player and a great leader as well.”
Johnson uses his lower body strength to plow through arm tackles and keep runs alive. Johnson has 188 yards on 38 carries with five touchdowns so far this season. Penn State has not practiced live tackling much, opting to use the “thud” tackling route in practices to keep players healthy due to depth concerns, senior Glenn Carson said.
Carson isn’t worried that a lack of tackling practice will hamper the Nittany Lions’ defensive efforts, however, and Penn State could get a boost if one of its best tacklers — linebacker Mike Hull — returns. Hull is officially listed as “possible” on the team’s injury report and resumed practicing earlier this week.
“Mike Hull’s definitely a heart-and-soul guy and, having him back, I know it was killing him to stay out and be injured,” Carson said. “It hurts us to watch that and it’s just good knowing that he’s on the brink of coming back soon.”
Penn State fans will likely have to wait until game time to find out if Hull will play. O’Brien said he would monitor Hull’s progress from a right leg injury suffered against Syracuse and that he would be good to go barring any setbacks at practice. It’s a long time to wait, especially for Penn State players.
“The anticipation is definitely hard,” Carson said. “It’s one thing I don’t really like about a six o’clock game but then again you get to sleep in and the extra time you get to prepare for the game as well as the night time atmosphere with the stands, it’s definitely a special thing.”
The Knights, who practiced all week with added speakers that pumped ear-splitting static across their fields, think they’re ready for an environment they believe will rival what they faced at Ohio State last season. Then, the home crowd at Ohio Stadium numbered more than 104,000 and impacted the outcome, Worton said. The Knights lost three of their four games by an average of just over four points per game but were decked 31-16 by the Buckeyes.
“It’s something we all remember and the taste is in our mouth still,” Worton said. “We have to go back and make a good impression for what our new conference is all about. But we definitely took away the amount of noise their crowd provided. We had to make adjustments in the game and now we’re ready for it this year so we can come out and start and those adjustments are already made and we’ll be ready to play.”
Follow Travis Johnson on Twitter for live in-game updates @bytravisjohnson.