James Franklin sprinted through a tornado of people. Amidst the constant chatter of camera lenses, the here-and-gone glares of their flashes and a droning roar from nearly 54,000 fans, Franklin was on the hunt.
When he found the man he was looking for -- Penn State senior Sam Ficken -- Franklin grabbed the Nittany Lion kicker, wrapped him up in a bear hug and lifted him off the ground. Minutes later, Franklin and Ficken took turns along with the rest of the Nittany Lions raising the Dan Rooney Trophy -- the prize for winning the Croke Park Classic -- over their heads.
Penn State withstood Central Florida's furious fourth-quarter rally and was booted to a 26-24 win when Ficken sent a 36-yard field goal through the fluorescent goalposts as time expired at Croke Park on Saturday. When the ball sailed through good, Ficken took off running, arms raised to the sky, afraid he'd get crushed under the weight of his much bigger teammates who wanted to pounce on him in celebration in the middle of Ireland's most sacred sporting surface.
"I didn't hit it real good to be honest," Ficken said. "Kinda chopped it a little bit. It kind of went up right at the right pole. I was a little nervous it might clink but the wind pushed it back in. As soon as I saw it go in I knew it was going to be good and then I had a little fun. There's like 310-pound linemen running at you and I didn't want to get dog-piled. So I decided running was the best option."
Beforehand, Penn State opted to run a pass-heavy attack led by sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg and buoyed by a handful of new receivers.
Hackenberg completed 32 of 47 passes for 454 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions. Redshirt freshman DaeSean Hamilton caught 11 passes for 165 yards and sophomore Geno Lewis added eight catches for 173 yards and a touchdown. Combined, Hackenberg completed passes to seven different targets.
Zach Zwinak scored on a one-yard touchdown run while Lewis picked up the longest scoring play of the afternoon -- a 79-yard bomb from Hackenberg that gave Penn State a 20-10 lead late in the third quarter. In addition to his game-winner, Ficken hit kicks of 22, 33 and 24 yards to keep Penn State (1-0) in front of UCF for the first 58 minutes of the game.
"That guy's had as consistent of a summer as anybody on our team. He's been money," Franklin said of Ficken. "I'm just happy for him because he's had an interesting career, that's probably the best way to describe it. But it's not how you start, it's how you finish and he's a perfect example in this life and in this program if you just stay positive and persevere and you keep working, good things will happen."
They started to happen for the Knights (0-1) as soon as backup quarterback Justin Holman got a chance to run the offense. UCF coach George O'Leary benched starter Pete DiNovo after a run of ineffectiveness saw the redshirt freshman complete just 3-of-8 passes for 18 yards in the first half. All-in-all, the Knights managed just 35 yards in the first two quarters against an efficient and versatile Penn State defense.
The Nittany Lions regularly worked in five and six defensive backs and got a critical goal line stop to foil the Knights' second drive of the game.
"That was huge," senior linebacker Mike Hull said. "I think if you hold them, you're not giving up any points and you're winning in a high red zone situation. That's what we had to do, stop them there and incite a change and I think we did a really good job."
Change came for the Knights with Holman at the helm in the third. The mobile quarterback led a seven-play, 70-yard scoring drive, capped by his one-yard scoring run, on his second series to give UCF its first touchdown of the season. He ended the third and began the fourth quarter with another strong showing, completing all three of his passes for 65 yards. Holman passed to Josh Reese for a 10-yard touchdown to cut Penn State's lead to 20-17.
Penn State's next two possessions ended in turnovers. Hackenberg was intercepted by Jordan Ozerities but the Nittany Lions got the ball right back when defensive tackle Anthony Zettel ripped it away from a UCF defender at the bottom of a pile after Holman fumbled. The Nittany Lions would lose it two plays later when freshman wide receiver Chris Godwin coughed it up to Clayton Geathers.
Ficken's third field goal gave Penn State a 23-17 lead but UCF wasn't done. Facing a fourth-and-10 from midfield, Holman fired deep to Reese who was behind Penn State corner Trevor Williams. Reese laid out backwards and hauled in the 37-yard pass to set up first-and-goal from the six. Holman dashed through the Penn State defense on the next play to give the Knights their first lead with 1:13 to play.
Penn State had all three timeouts and Hackenberg had plenty of options. He targeted three different players and converted a fourth-and-3 with his legs, striding and diving ahead from his team's 33-yard line for an eight-yard gain with less than a minute left. Running back Bill Belton turned a shovel pass into a 13-yard gain and got out of bounds to stop the clock before Lewis picked up nine more yards with the clock ticking down to 17 seconds left.
Hackenberg found Lewis with his next pass and Lewis galloped 18 yards to the UCF 19-yard line before Hackenberg hustled the offense to the line and called a timeout.
Ficken, who was much maligned earlier in his career after a string of misses, took care of the rest.
"I think I've definitely gained more poise obviously through the trials and tribulations of my career," Ficken said. "I've been in that situation before and I've succeeded and I've failed. So to grasp that experience and kind of hone it in and not worry about what's around me, just focus on my fundamentals, I knew I could do a great job."
Afterward, red, white, blue and silver confetti fell to the Croke Park pitch as Dan Rooney, the Pittsburgh Steelers chariman and former U.S. Ambassador to Ireland, presented Franklin with the 4,200-year-old trophy made from a piece of Irish bog wood and steel from Three Rivers Stadium.
"We haven't been to a bowl game in a while but that was pretty similar," senior safety Ryan Keiser said. "We've got a lot of season left and we're going to enjoy this one but we're moving on to next week in the next 24 hours."
Notes: Starting wide receiver Rannell Hall and first-string running back William Stanback did not play for the Knights. … Hull led Penn State with 11 tackles. … The announced attendance was 53,304. … Penn State punted only once. … Penn State was 10-of-18 on third down and registered 24 first downs to UCF's 11. … Penn State ran 75 offensive plays to UCF's 51.