UNIVERSITY PARK — The 507 yards the Penn State defense surrendered was a hard number for Nittany Lion defenders to swallow following their 34-31 loss to Central Florida.
More than half of that yardage — 329 yards — was picked up on 10 plays. Six of those were passes and were good for a total of 179 yards. It was Penn State’s worst defensive performance statistically since the TicketCity Bowl when the Nittany Lions surrendered 600 yards of offense. The 34 points were the most Penn State has given up at home since it joined the Big Ten.
Inside the Beaver Stadium media room Saturday night, cornerback Trevor Williams’ eyes dropped when he heard it. His partner in the secondary, Jordan Lucas sat by himself looking down at the carpeted floor. Malcolm Willis was tough on himself.
“Play better,” Willis said. “To be honest, I think I probably played my worst game as a Penn State player. As a leader on this team, I have to lead my position better and I have to take a lot of responsibility for certain things and this loss is one that it really hurts me. Not only because it’s my last year but I feel like I could’ve done way more.”
But that was a collective feeling.
Willis wasn’t the only player on the field when UCF running back Storm Johnson gashed teh defense for a 58-yard touchdown run in the second quarter. He wasn’t the only defensive back that failed to adjust or pick up shifty UCF receivers J.J. Worton and Josh Reese as the two combined for 10 catches, 169 yards and two touchdowns from UCF quarterback Blake Bortles.
“We knew what we were getting into,” Lucas said. “We knew exactly what type of player the quarterback was and we knew what type of receivers he had. And we were well aware that he liked to extend the play, he liked to get out of the pocket and you’ve just got to play coverage.”
While Penn State tried to disguise its coverages, Worton, Reese, Breshad Perriman an Rannell Hall were able to get open and Bortles, an experienced signal-caller, was able to diagnose them. Now it is up to Penn State to examine itself, locate and correct its defensive breakdowns.
Defensive coordinator John Butler isn’t worried that Penn State’s defensive players won’t be able to move on from the loss.
Penn State got linebackers Mike Hull and Ben Kline and safety Ryan Keiser back from injuries but even their presences couldn’t slow the UCF run game. Led by Storm Johnson, UCF racked up 219 rushing yards at a 5.8-yard-per carry average.
“Honestly, we thought we would be able to handle (both the run and pass) better,” Penn State defensive coordinator John Butler said. “ It’s a collective effort, coaches, players have to look at the tape and figure out what it was. We felt good going in that we knew what we needed to do to be able to stop them. To be honest with you, we couldn’t stop what we needed to stop.”
The Nittany Lions couldn’t get a stop on a third down on UCF’s opening drive. Then, Bortles dropped a pass into Jeff Godfrey’s arms for a 28-yard gain on third-and-9. Later, with UCF up 31-24 early in the fourth quarter, Penn State looked like it had a stop when Glenn Carson nailed Bortles as he released the ball.
The pass, intended for Hall, fell incomplete but Lucas was flagged for pass interference and UCF got a fresh set of downs and marched 50 more yards and got a field goal from Shawn Moffitt to take a 10-point lead. Importantly, the Knights dissolved 5:22 of time and Penn State eventually ran out of it despite scoring to cut the lead to a field goal.
Butler said he isn’t worried about the defense being able to rebound from the tough outting.
“There’s no concern,” Butler said. “If there’s one thing people around here should know about our players it’s that they’ve been through a lot worse that losing to Central Florida. They’re confidence is going to be shaken like it always is after a loss but they’ll come back, go back to the drawing board Monday, just like Coach (O’Brien) said, put our nose back to the grindstone, correct what we’ve got to correct and move forward.”