Although the scoreboard showed just a three-point deficit as players sauntered to midfield to shake hands at Beaver Stadium, the Nittany Lions never seemed close to Central Florida in the Knights’ 34-31 win on Saturday.
Maybe because the Knights had no trouble mounting scoring drive after scoring drive. On the wings of big plays, UCF needed just 10 plays to rack up 329 yards.
Maybe because Penn State never made UCF quarterback Blake Bortles uncomfortable.
Maybe because the Nittany Lions failed to wrap up and tackle UCF’s talented stable of skill position players.
Maybe a few critical mistakes — a rookie quarterback taking a sack with no timeouts at the end of the first half and a fumble from Penn State’s top rusher when the Nittany Lions were on the march midway through the fourth quarter.
In reality, it was an amalgamation of all of the above.
“We have to have a short memory,” senior safety Malcolm Willis said. “We just have to watch the film adjust our mistakes and come out on Monday with a different attitude.”
UCF’s offense clicked throughout the evening. The Knights executed with explosive results, notching 10 plays of 20 yards or more.
Penn State’s offense was able to keep pace, however and Bill O’Brien noted that much in his news conference following the game.
“When you look at the point totals, at the end of the day, how many points you are scoring, it’s not bad — 45 last week, 23 the first week and 31 (against UCF),” O’Brien said.
And although it wasn’t enough to overcome UCF, there were some offensive positives for Penn State.
True freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg was solid again and did not turn the ball for first time. He spread the ball around again, hitting seven different targets on the evening. After completing 21 of his 28 passes against the Knights, Hackenberg leads the Big Ten with a 71.2 completion percentage.
Hackenberg kept his composure while playing from behind the entire second half. He threw a nice fade to Allen Robinson in the corner of the end zone to cut UCF’s lead to three late in the fourth quarter.
“Allen had a great day. He’s been very consistent,” Hackenberg said. “Great playmaker for us. Get the ball in his hands and he can do great things. I saw he was manned up and I gave him a shot. The kid has a 38-inch vertical so I just gave him a shot.”
The defense was bad all around.
There was no pass rush as Bortles was hit just twice and never hurried. He had time to throw and was able to carve up Penn State’s secondary for 288 yards on 20 of 27 attempts. Willis was able to take advantage of Bortles’ lone mistake in the second quarter when Bortles floated a ball deep down the sideline but Penn State couldn’t turn Willis’ interception into points.
Penn State’s secondary was no match for Bortles when he had all night to throw and his receivers who played physically throughout the game.
“He’s a good player. He’s poised, confident, threw accurately, made decisions and threw the ball where he needed to,” Penn State defensive coordinator John Butler said. “We tried everything. That’s the one thing I know I can say is that we emptied the game plan. We tried to play man. We tried to play zone. We tried to play half man, half zone. They did a good job.”
UCF coach George O’Leary was forced to reshuffle his offensive line when starting left tackle Torrian Wilson was unable to play with a knee injury.
But Penn State defensive ends Deion Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan could not get to Bortles despite lining up against players who were not in their normal positions. UCF moved usual right tackle Chris Martin to the left side, flipped normal left guard Jordan McCray to the right guard spot and shifted right guard Justin McCray to right tackle. Second-string center Tarik Cook took over at left guard.
Defensive tackle DaQuan Jones finished with five tackles but Olaniyan was the only defensive lineman who had a tackle for loss.
Penn State coaches and players have talked about the positives of thud tackling in practice — it enables the staff to keep players healthier as they are not taking their teammates to the ground. Glenn Carson said it has helped the defense understand positioning and leverage better.
But it didn’t do Penn State any favors against UCF which handed the ball to Storm Johnson — a physical runner who proved difficult to tackle along with receivers J.J. Worton, Jeff Godfrey, Josh Reese and Breshad Perriman. Penn State missed tackles consistently throughout the night and were in poor positions to make others.
“Tackling in open space is going to be something we’ve got to improve on,” Butler said. “I think it’s fair to have a concern about (thud) but we’re drilling it all the time and maybe we just need to drill it at a faster speed.”
While Penn State missed tackles consistently, they whiffed on chances to prevent scoring plays in crucial situations.
Cornerback Trevor Williams slipped when he tried to square up on the elusive Johnson on UCF’s first touchdown — a swing pass to Johnson that went for four yards.
Barnes took an inside rush and let Johnson bounce to the outside where linebacker Mike Hull was out of position and Ryan Keiser missed a desperation tackle on Johnson’s 58-yard touchdown run in the second quarter. Safety Adrian Amos took a poor pursuit angle and Johnson was gone for the deflating score.
Josh Reese stepped around Jordan Lucas and Williams — who crashed into one another — before slipping into the end zone for a 25-yard score in the third quarter.
Day to Remember
Robinson leads the Big Ten with 405 yards on 23 catches and is 108 yards ahead of Michigan’s Jeremy Gallon. Robinson scored again against UCF to give him three touchdowns on the season.
Like he had through the first two games, Robinson proved to be a difference-maker with the ball in his hands. His 143 receiving yards led all players on Saturday and made a critical catch late in the fourth quarter to pull Penn State within a field goal. In one-on-one coverage with corner Jordan Ozerities, Robinson jumped with Ozerities all over him and hauled in Hackenberg’s pass for the five-yard score. Ozerities was flagged for pass interference.
Day to Forget
Williams and Lucas notched six tackles apiece. It usually isn’t a good sign when cornerbacks are the top tacklers. On UCF’s first drive Williams notched three of his six. On those plays, UCF threw short passes for gains of nine, nine and 10 yards against Williams.
Either way, the two sophomore cornerbacks didn’t get much help from anyone else on the defense and the entire unit — save for Carson who also had six tackles — could stand to forget this one.
Key Play You Already Forgot
O’Brien took the time afforded by the turn of the quarter to draw up a special play in the middle of the first half.
At the start of the second quarter, Penn State faced second-and-six from the UCF 35. Hackenberg handed off to Bill Belton who turned, flipped it back to Hackenberg and the first flea-flicker of the season was under way.
But UCF’s talented middle linebacker Terrance Plummer bore down on his man — the running back Belton — got around him and got his arms in Hackenberg’s face to force an early throw. As Penn State receiver Eugene Lewis crossed the field the ball arrived at the exact moment Clayton Geathers leveled him. The pass fell incomplete. Without Plummer’s pressure and some extra time it could’ve been a devastating play for Penn State as Geathers had his back to Hackenberg and would have been out of position a second or two later.
“We play with a chip on our shoulders. I know I do. We didn’t have the offers from Penn State and the big schools so when we come here and play we want to make sure that they know we can play with them and we took advantage of our opportunity (Saturday).” — Bortles, whose major recruiting offers were limited to Florida State, Tennessee, Arkansas and Clemson on facing a team from a power conference.